The New York Times ran a great piece today detailing one 15-year-old’s battle to remove brominated vegetable oil — “BVO” — from soft drinks in the U.S. market.
Sarah Kavanaugh, an observant teen in Mississippi, noticed the ingredient on the label of a Gatorade bottle, and started asking questions about what BVO was. When she learned about the “long list of possible side effects, including neurological disorders and altered thyroid hormones,” she started an online petition on the citizen action site, Change.org, asking Gatorade to drop BVO as an ingredient: Gatorade: Don’t put flame retardant chemicals in sports drinks!
The Times reports that:
[A}bout 10 percent of drinks sold in the United States contain brominated vegetable oil, including Mountain Dew, also made by PepsiCo; Powerade, Fanta Orange and Fresca from Coca-Cola; and Squirt and Sunkist Peach Soda, made by the Dr Pepper Snapple Group.
The ingredient is added often to citrus drinks to help keep the fruit flavoring evenly distributed; without it, the flavoring would separate.
The Europeans and Japanese know better, so clearly there’s another way to solve the separation problem (I would bet it just costs a little more):
[T]he European Union has long banned the substance from foods, requiring use of other ingredients. Japan recently moved to do the same.
You may recall that one class of chemicals used as flame retardants are referred to broadly as “brominated” — this BVO additive is related, as the name suggests:
Brominated vegetable oil contains bromine, the element found in brominated flame retardants, used in things like upholstered furniture and children’s products. Research has found brominate[d] flame retardants building up in the body and breast milk, and animal and some human studies have linked them to neurological impairment, reduced fertility, changes in thyroid hormones and puberty at an earlier age.
Limited studies of the effects of brominated vegetable oil in animals and in humans found buildups of bromine in fatty tissues. Rats that ingested large quantities of the substance in their diets developed heart lesions.
The article further explains that food additive regulation is basically a joke. If a manufacturer can find an “independent” lab to certify that a chemical is safe for consumption, the company can use the chemical without even notifying the Food and Drug Administration (FDA):
A company can create a new additive, publish safety data about it on its Web site and pay a law firm or consulting firm to vet it to establish it as “generally recognized as safe” — without ever notifying the F.D.A.
The last time the specific issue of the safety and risks of BVO was studied was back in the 1970s, and the data remain extremely thin — and cover periods of up to four months only, while the current standard is that additives must be studied for two years.
A private association, the Flavor and Extract Manufacturers Association, which conducts studies on food safety that are then evaluated by the FDA, revoked the designation of BVO as “generally” safe in 1970. After a few more (inadequate) studies of the additive by the Association, the FDA permitted the additive to be used in food:
[FDA] asked the association to do studies on brominated vegetable oil in mice, rats, dogs and pigs. She said that the organization made “several submissions of safety data” to the F.D.A. while those studies were going on, roughly from 1971 to 1974.
“F.D.A. determined that the totality of evidence supported the safe use of B.V.O. in fruit-flavored beverages up to 15 parts per million,” Ms. El-Hinnawy wrote.
That ruling, made in 1977, was supposed to be interim, pending more studies, but 35 years later it is unchanged. “Any change in the interim status of B.V.O. would require an expenditure of F.D.A.’s limited resources, which is not a public health protection priority for the agency at this time,” Ms. El-Hinnawy wrote.
Meanwhile, no further testing has been done. While most people have limited exposure to brominated vegetable oil, an extensive article about it by Environmental Health News that ran in Scientific American last year found that video gamers and others who binge on sodas and other drinks containing the ingredient experience skin lesions, nerve disorders and memory loss.
We know a lot more about the health effects of brominated chemicals (pdf) now than we did in the 1970s, and a lot of what we know is not good, linking them to harms like lowered IQ and fertility that were unlikely to be measured by these studies.
Moreover, I would wonder about the safety of offspring of pregnant women who drink these chemicals in beverages — given the links found by a recent study between levels of a different brominated chemical, PBDE, in pregnant women and learning delays and attention problems in their children at the age of 7. Those kinds of impacts simply can’t be seen in studies that last months, rather than years.
And what about Gatorade or sports drinks consumption by children after sporting events? Thanks to a blistering investigation by the British Medical Journal earlier this year, we now know that the whole “sports drinks” argument about replenishing fluids is a corporate-sponsored myth, at least as pertains to everyone but the Olympic athlete-in-training.
Yet these companies aggressively market these products to children, as a summary of that study in The Atlantic explains:
Both GSK [GlaxoSmithKline, which sells a UK sports drink] and Gatorade have developed school outreach programs that further the case for sports drink consumption during exercise. Though the Institute of Medicine says that, in children, “Thirst and consumption of beverages at meals are adequate to maintain hydration,” studies either directly funded by or involving authors with financial ties to Gatorade make a major case for the need to promote hydration, claiming, for example, that “children are particularly likely to forget to drink unless reminded to do so.”
All this makes it particularly appropriate that a bright 15-year-old is leading the charge, though it’s upsetting to learn that the FDA is evidently not even monitoring the evidence.
Go sign her petition! I did. You might also join me in pondering why the FDA is allowing a harmful chemical to be 15-parts-per-million in our beverages, and how the whole food additive system needs a serious overhaul in the name of public safety.
And now that you know what bunk it all is, you can save both money and your health by drinking water (perhaps with a spritz of fresh, organic lime or lemon) in lieu of all those sugary sodas and “sports drinks.” Now that’s refreshing.
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.”