More Testing Needed to Ensure BVO is Safe
PepsiCo’s decision to stop using brominated vegetable oil in Gatorade marks an important victory for consumers. The chemical, known as BVO, is used in the U.S. as an emulsifier in citrus-flavored drinks, about 10 percent of the U.S. soft drink market, to keep the flavoring from floating to the top.
There are at least two documented cases in which heavy drinkers of BVO-laced beverages have been reported to suffer from bromide intoxication, characterized by memory loss and neurological symptoms. The risks of BVO to human health have not been definitively established, but some scientists have expressed concerns about it because BVO accumulates in human tissue. A 1984 study found that when female rats that were nursing pups were fed brominated olive oil, the chemical showed up in their milk. This and an animal study showing reproductive and developmental effects in rodents raise concerns about the possible effects of the chemical on developing children.
“Chemicals like BVO should be subjected to much more study before they are allowed in food,” said Heather White, Executive Director at the Environmental Working Group. “We need to overhaul the rules so that the federal Food and Drug Administration knows much more about this and other food additives to better protect public health."
PepsiCo announced January 25 that it would reformulate Gatorade. It was responding to a petition circulated on Change.org by 15-year-old Sarah Kavanagh of Hattiesburg, Miss., and signed by more than 200,000 people. “I thought [the petition] might get a lot of support because no one wants to gulp down flame retardant, especially from a drink they associate with being healthy,” Kavanagh told the Hattiesburg American. “But with Gatorade being as big as they are, sometimes it was hard to know if we’d ever win. This is so, so awesome.”
The FDA granted BVO "interim status" as a food additive in 1977, which allowed its use in soft drinks, but it is banned from European and Japanese soft drinks. It is patented in the U.S. and overseas as a flame retardant. The extent to which it is used for this purpose is not clear, based on the public record.
Other brominated chemicals are widely used as flame retardants. They are often found in foam furniture, television sets and other electronics and in household dust. Some brominated flame retardants are associated with hormone disruption and harmful neurodevelopmental effects. These compounds are not structurally similar to BVO. It is unknown whether they have the same potential for toxicity.
But until the FDA requires testing to ensure that BVO is safe, no one can accurately assess its potential for harm to public health.