by Marion Nestle
Jan 29 2013

Brominated Vegetable Oil: R.I.P. (let’s hope)

I’m teaching a course on food advocacy this semester at NYU and am always looking for instructive examples.  Here’s a good one.

PepsiCo announced that it would remove Brominated Vegetable Oil (BVO) from Gatorade and replace it with something less potentially harmful.

BVO, a flame retardant, keeps keep flavor oils in suspension and prevents a cloudy appearance in soft drinks.

According to the account in the New York Times, PepsiCo’s action followed soon after a 15-year-old activist in Mississippi, Sarah Kavanagh, filed a petition on to remove BVO.

The petition attracted more than 200,000 signatures, and this week, Ms. Kavanagh was in New York City to tape a segment for “The Dr. Oz Show.” She visited The New York Times on Wednesday and while there said, “I just don’t understand why they can’t use something else instead of B.V.O.”

…a spokesman for PepsiCo…said in an e-mail, “We appreciate Sarah as a fan of Gatorade, and her concern has been heard.”

…”Kudos to PepsiCo for doing the responsible thing on its own and not waiting for the F.D.A. to force it to,” said Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest [CSPI].

Mr. Jacobson has championed the removal of brominated vegetable oil from foods and beverages for the last several decades, but the F.D.A. has left it in a sort of limbo, citing budgetary constraints that it says keep it from going through the process needed to formally ban the chemical or declare it safe once and for all.

I love Ms. Kavanagh’s response to BVO’s removal, as quoted in Beverage Daily:

I thought I might get a lot of support because no-one wants to gulp down flame retardant, especially from a drink they associate with being healthy. 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.

A teenager with social media skills accomplished what CSPI has been trying to do for decades. 

The FDA removed BVO from its list of ingredients Generally Recognized As Safe in 1970, but in 1977 allowed companies to use it on an “interim” basis.  It says getting rid of it is “not a priority.”

Animal studies show it causes lesions in the liver and impairs growth and behavior.   The medical literature contains occasional case reports of bromine toxicity in individuals who abuse brominated cola drinks.

Getting rid of it is good news.

But, as CSPI’s Michael Jacobson points out:

Gatorade without BVO is nutritionally no better than with it.  A typical 20oz (591ml) bottle has 130 calories, all from its 34 g of refined sugars.