GRAS—Generally Regarded As Safe

You may not be aware the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has a classification referred to as “generally regarded as safe” (GRAS). This designation is given to foods, drugs, food additives, and other materials with a long-term history of not causing illness to humans, even though official testing may not have been conducted.

In fact, the FDA permits food and additive manufacturers to notify them of the GRAS status of their additives, and the FDA also allows them to provide their own research on the safety of their products. As Eric Schlosser points out in his book Fast Food Nation, GRAS affects you because it enables companies to hide the ingredients in their flavoring compounds. Given this, what is really behind food label phrases like “artificial flavor,” “artificial coloring,” and even “natural?”

At the time Schlosser’s book was published, Burger King listed the ingredients in their strawberry shake syrup as: corn syrup, water, high fructose corn syrup, citric acid, artificial flavor, sodium benzoate (preservative), and colored with red #40.

As an example of GRAS, Schlosser reveals on pages 125-6 of his book:

A typical artificial strawberry flavor like the kind found in a Burger King strawberry milk shake, contains the following ingredients: amyl acetate, amyl butyrate, amyl valerate, anethol, anisyl formate, benzyl acetate, benzyl isobutyrate butyric acid, cinnamyl isobutyrate, cinnamyl valerate, cognac essential oil, diacetyl, dipropyl ketone, ethyl acetate, ethyl amylketone, ethyl butyrate, ethyl cinnamate, ethyl heptanoate, ethyl heptylate, ethyl lactate, ethyl methylphenylglycidate, ethyl nitrate, ethyl propionate, ethyl valerate, heliotropin, hydroxyphenyl-2-butanone,   (10 percent solution in alcohol) α-ionone, isobutyl anthranilate, isobutyl butyrate, lemon essential oil, maltol, 4-methylacetophenone, methyl anthranilate, methyl benzoate, methyl cinnamate, methyl heptine carbonate, methyl naphthyl ketone, methyl salicylate, mint essential oil neroli essential oil, nerolin, neryl isobutyrate, orris butter, phenethyl alcohol, rose, rum ether, y-undecalactone, vanillin, and solvent.

Remember, this is just a list of chemicals used in the artificial flavor. What about the other ingredients used in their shake?

Were you aware of manufacturers being responsible for: notifying the FDA of the status of their GRAS additives, providing their own research on the safety of their products, and being able to hide unpronounceable chemical ingredients under phrases like “artificial flavor,” “artificial coloring,” and even “natural?”

Please note, Fast Food Nation was published in 2001. What other “interesting” developments have occurred within the food and additive industries during the intervening 14 years? And why am I not optimistic?

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