October 21, 2014
rows of cans of soda
Be Well

BVO: Soda Chemical Under Fire

by John Swartzberg, M.D.  |  

In May Coca-Cola announced plans to remove brominated vegetable oil (BVO) from its beverages, including Powerade and Fresca. Last year PepsiCo took it out of Gatorade. Just what is BVO—a flame retardant—doing in sports drinks and sodas in the first place, you may ask. Is it safe—and if not, how has the FDA allowed it to remain in our food supply for so long?

BVO is used primarily in citrus-flavored drinks to keep the flavoring evenly distributed and provide cloudiness. It has been controversial because brominated flame retardants have been under increased scrutiny for having potential adverse effects in people.

Much of the brouhaha over BVO began when a high school student, Sarah Kavanagh, petitioned PepsiCo to take it out of its citrus Gatorade and got more than 200,000 signatures. PepsiCo said that its decision to reformulate had nothing to do with the petition but rather that it made the change “because we know that some consumers have a negative perception of BVO in Gatorade.” Coca-Cola made a similar statement.

So is BVO safe? It’s not clear. Animal research has found some toxic effects at very large doses, with rats developing heart muscle lesions, reproductive impairments, and other problems. Published studies in people are scarce, but BVO is known to accumulate in fat tissue, and there are reports of people drinking large amounts of these beverages (2 liters or more a day) developing headaches, fatigue, memory loss, confusion, loss of muscle coordination, and skin lesions.

The FDA classified BVO as GRAS (generally recognized as safe) in 1958, but after its safety was questioned, it was demoted to “interim” status in the 1970s, meaning that it could still be used but in limited amounts pending further study. The FDA says that subsequent research affirmed BVO’s safety and that the additive remains in regulatory limbo simply because changing its status (a costly process) is not a public health priority at this time. But critics say the studies were inadequate and have been urging the FDA to re-evaluate the additive. The FDA might be off the hook if food companies eventually phase BVO out of all their beverages voluntarily. For now, though, it remains in a number of them, including Squirt, Orange Crush, and Sunkist sodas.

I doubt that consuming small amounts of BVO is harmful (the greater risk comes from the sugar and calories in these beverages). But lots of kids (and many adults) have been guzzling huge quantities of these beverages for years, which is why I’m disturbed that the FDA has not been more aggressive about ascertaining BVO’s safety. Many food additives in the U.S. are, so to speak, considered innocent until proven guilty. That works well for our justice system but perhaps we’d be better off following the so-called precautionary principle and viewing them as guilty until proven innocent—though, admittedly, it’s hard to “prove” safety. Adherence to this principle is more the norm in Europe, where BVO is banned outright. It’s not allowed in Japan or India either.

What to do: If you want to avoid BVO, check the ingredients of citrus-flavored beverages. Better yet, if you base your diet on whole unprocessed foods (and limit or avoid junky foods and drinks), you have less to worry about when it comes to food additives overall. Perhaps the real takeaway message from this BVO backlash, however, is not to underestimate the effect a single person can have on a big system. Even if Sarah was not the reason why PepsiCo and Coca-Cola are removing BVO, she certainly brought the issue to our attention. Bravo Sarah.