Claim: Mountain Dew and other sodas contain a toxic chemical known as brominated vegetable oil (BVO).
Examples: [Collected via e-mail, March 2013]
"There's flame retardant in your Mountain Dew. That soda with the lime-green hue (and other citrus-flavored bubbly pops) won't keep your insides fireproof, but it does contain brominated vegetable oil, a patented flame retardant for plastics that has been banned in foods throughout Europe and in Japan.
Brominated vegetable oil, or BVO, which acts as an emulsifier in citrus-flavored soda drinks, is found in about
"After a few extreme soda binges — not too far from what many [video] gamers regularly consume — a few patients have needed medical attention for skin lesions, memory loss and nerve disorders, all symptoms of overexposure to bromine," according to a recent article in Environmental News.
Origins: Brominated vegetable oil (BVO) is vegetable oil which is bonded with atoms of the element bromine. BVO has long been used as a food additive in the soft drink industry, primarily to help keep citrus-flavor oils suspended in beverages and prevent them from floating to the top of the fluid. BVO is commonly found in popular citrus-flavored soft drinks such as Mountain Dew, Squirt, Fresca, Sunkist Peach,
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) originally classified BVO as a "generally recognized as safe" (GRAS) food additive in 1958, but that classification was withdrawn in the 1970s after studies linked the consumption of brominated oil with heart disease in rats. BVO was subsequently reclassified as an "interim food additive" (pending the outcome of additional studies), with the use of BVO in food products limited to a concentration of
The Flavor Extract Manufacturers' Association petitioned the FDA to get BVO back in fruit-flavored beverages, this time as a stabilizer, which is its role today. After evaluating the petition and other data, the FDA in 1977 approved the interim use of BVO at 15 ppm in fruit-flavored beverages, pending the outcome of additional studies.
"This decision was based on the highest No Observed Effect Levels from the existing safety studies and the estimated daily intake," Karas said. "Although there were doses that showed adverse effects in the animal studies, there also were lower doses in which there were no adverse effects observed."
As a condition of interim approval, the industry group submitted additional safety studies to the FDA.
"The findings from these studies supported the safety of BVO in beverages at a level of
More than 30 years later, brominated vegetable oil's approval status is still listed as interim. Changing the status would be costly and "is not a public health priority for the agency at this time," Karas said.
Some scientists in recent years have called for a re-examination of BVO's safety as a food additive using newer technologies that were not available when the issue was last assessed by the FDA:
After a few extreme soda binges — not too far from what many gamers regularly consume — a few patients have needed medical attention for skin lesions, memory loss and nerve disorders, all symptoms of overexposure to bromine. Other studies suggest that BVO could be building up in human tissues, just like other brominated compounds such as flame retardants. In mouse studies, big doses caused reproductive and behavioral problems.
Reports from an industry group helped the U.S. Food and Drug Administration establish in 1977 what it considers a safe limit for BVO in sodas. But some scientists say that limit is based on data that is thin and several decades old, and they insist that the chemical deserves a fresh look.
"Compounds like these that are in widespread use probably should be reexamined periodically with newer technologies to ensure that there aren't effects that would have been missed by prior methods," said Charles Vorhees, a toxicologist at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center, who studied BVO's neurological effects in the early 1980s. "I think BVO is the kind of compound that probably warrants some reexamination."
Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, was involved with the petition to remove BVO from the "safe" list in 1970. He said it's time for the FDA to make a decision, one way or the other.
"Is it harmful at the amounts consumed? Probably not," Jacobson said. "But it would be nice if the FDA did a thorough review of the literature and finalized an approval or a ban."
In 2003, doctors treated a man who developed swollen hands with oozing sores. They diagnosed a rare case of the skin condition bromoderma after blood tests revealed his bromine was about twice normal limits. The man admitted drinking about
Nonetheless, whatever health risks may or may not be associated with the consumption of BVO, this warning about its presence in popular sodas such as Mountain Dew is largely outdated. In January 2013 PepsiCo (while acknowledging that they "don't find a health and safety risk with BVO") announced that in response to consumer concerns they would discontinue the use of BVO in their Gatorade line of drinks. The company stated at the time they "had no plans to remove [BVO] from Mountain Dew and Diet Mountain Dew," but in
Coca-Cola and PepsiCo have stood by the safety of the ingredient, which is used to distribute flavors more evenly in fruit-flavored drinks. But their decisions reflect the pressure companies are facing as people pay closer attention to ingredient labels and try to stick to diets they feel are natural. Several major food makers have recently changed their recipes to remove chemicals or dyes that people find objectionable.
While food companies stress that the ingredients meet regulatory requirements, their decisions reflect how marketing a product as "natural" has become priority and a competitive advantage.
Coca-Cola also said that it's removing the ingredient from all its drinks to be consistent in the ingredients it uses around the world. In addition to Powerade, Coca-Cola uses BVO in some flavors of Fanta, Fresca and several citrus-flavored fountain drinks. The company said BVO should be phased out in the U.S. by the end of the year.
Coca-Cola said it would instead use sucrose acetate isobutyrate, which it noted has been used in drinks for more than
Eng, Monica. "Gatorade to Drop BVO After Consumer Complaints." Chicago Tribune. 26 January 2013. Goodman, Brenda. "Brominated Vegetable Oil Q&A." WebMD. 30 January 2013. Israel, Brett. "Brominated Battle: Soda Chemical Has Cloudy Health History." Scientific America. 12 December 2011. Strom, Stephanie. "PepsiCo Will Halt Use of Additive in Gatorade." The New York Times. 25 January 2013. Associated Press. "Substance in Vegetable Oil Linked to Heart Ills in Rats." The [Newburgh] Evening News. 24 January 1970. Associated Press. "Coke, Pepsi Dropping Controversial 'BVO' from All Drinks." USA Today. 5 May 2014.