From supermarket shelves across the country, fluorescent rainbow sports drinks call to athletes and non-athletes alike, promising them a tasty treat that will also empower them to grunt and sweat like an NFL linebacker.
But Gatorade may also offer consumers a dose of brominated vegetable oil (BVO), a flame-retardant chemical that, in large quantities, can cause a slew of health problems. The issue drew national attention in December, when 15-year-old Sarah Kavanagh filed a petition on Change.org asking PepsiCo, the company that produces Gatorade, to remove the chemical from its beverages. And kudos to Kavanagh: On Friday, the company announced it would no longer use BVO in Gatorade.
Why It Matters
After Kavanagh's petition drew more than 200,000 signatures, PepsiCo decided to remove BVO from a number of Gatorade drinks, including orange, citrus cooler, and lemonade Gatorade, Gatorade X-Factor orange, Gatorade Xtremo citrus cooler, and “glacier freeze,” a powdered form of Gatorade. The chemical will be replaced by sucrose acetate isobutyrate, an emulsifier “generally recognized as safe” by the FDA. The new Gatorade concoctions should start hitting shelves within the next few months.
Brominated vegetable oil contains bromine, which studies have linked to issues including impaired neurological development, fertility problems, and altered thyroid hormones Neurotoxicity of Brominated Flame Retardants: (In)direct Effects of Parent and Hydroxylated Polybrominated Diphenyl Ethers on the (Developing) Nervous System. Dingemans, M.M., van den Berg. M., Westerink, R.H. Neurotoxicology Research Group, Toxicology Division, Institute for Risk Assessment Sciences, Utrecht University, Utrecht, The Netherlands. Environmental Health Perspectives 2011;119(7):900-7. The potential of selected brominated flame retardants to affect neurological development. Williams, A.L., DeSesso, J.M. Exponent, Alexandria, Virginia. Exponent, Alexandria, Virginia. Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health 2010;13(5):411-48.. BVO is actually banned in Europe and Japan, but 10 percent of sodas in the U.S. contain the chemical, since it supposedly preserves the flavor in fruity drinks such as Gatorade Orange and Mountain Dew.
But the safety of BVO, which has appeared in food products since the 1930s, is a complicated issue. While the FDA has never officially approved it for human consumption, the substance is “generally recognized as safe.” When a company creates a new additive, it can publish information about the additive’s safety on its website and have a law or consulting firm decide that it’s safe, without the FDA’s involvement.
Is It Legit?
Potentially. The FDA did run tests on brominated flame retardants, but that was all the way back in the 70s. Certain health experts are concerned that the results of that research are outdated, and that bromine may actually be toxic.
On the other hand, it’s worth noting that most of the recent research on the negative effects of bromine consumption involved animals that were fed pretty huge doses of BVO (poor little guys). In that case, it’s a question of volume: Some experts say the general population won’t ever down enough bromine to do damage. Others say people drink soda frequently enough to incur bromine poisoning during, say, video gamers pulling a 24-hour marathon or those rare soda addicts who consume two to four liters of the fizzy stuff per day Bromism from excessive cola consumption. Horowitz, B.Z. Journal of Toxicology 1997;35(3):315-20..
In extreme cases, people can experience problems as serious as nerve disorders and memory loss. And there’s some evidence that even people who don’t go on bromine binges can store the chemical in their fat tissue long-term.
But carbonation fans, beware: PepsiCo said it doesn't intend to remove BVO from Mountain Dew or Diet Mountain Dew. Maybe the best bet is just to stick to water in the meantime.
Are you convinced that Gatorade and other products that contain brominated vegetable oil are dangerous? Will you sign the petition? Let us know in the comments below or tweet the author directly @ShanaDLebowitz.