Jan 30, 2013 10:15 PM
Jan. 30, 2013 -- PepsiCo recently announced it would remove brominated vegetable oil (BVO) from its Gatorade drinks in response to customer concerns.
Just what is BVO? And what is it doing in your sports drink?
To learn more, we reached out to food chemists Kantha Shelke, PhD, a Chicago scientist who consults with food companies to develop new products, and Walter Vetter, PhD, who is studying BVO at the University of Hohenheim in Germany.
What is BVO?
Brominated vegetable oil is a synthetic chemical that is created when vegetable oil is bonded to the element bromine. Bromine is heavy, and it keeps the oil from floating to the top of water-based solutions, like soft drinks.
Why is BVO in some kinds of drinks?
Citrus flavors -- orange, lemon, lime, and grapefruit -- are oily. "When you put them on a soda or in a beverage, they tend to sit on top of the drink. They are not dispersed all the way through," Shelke says. BVO acts as an emulsifier, meaning it helps the citrus flavors mix better in the soft drink. Drinks that contain BVO usually look hazy or cloudy.
Why are there concerns about BVO?
In very high amounts drunk over a long period of time, BVO can build up in the body and cause toxic effects.
In 1997, doctors were stumped by the case of a man who came to the emergency room with headaches, fatigue, and a loss of muscle coordination and memory. He continued to get worse over time, and eventually he lost the ability to walk. A blood test found sky-high levels of bromide. The source? The man had been drinking between 2 and 4 liters of soda containing brominated vegetable oil every day. He needed dialysis but eventually recovered.
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 8 liters of Ruby Red Squirt, which contains BVO, each day.
High amounts of bromine can also cause skin breakouts known as halogen acne.
What about lower levels?
It's not known whether BVO might pose health concerns at the low levels most people take in, Vetter says.
But he and others think the food additive needs further study.
That's because it's in the same chemical family as flame-retardants like polybrominated diphenyl ether (PBDE).
Scientists are studying brominated flame retardants because blood tests show that these chemicals can build up in our bodies. Early studies suggest that flame-retardant chemicals disrupt normal hormone function, leading to problems with brain development in children, fertility, thyroid function, and possibly cancer.
In a 2012 study, Vetter found that in the U.S., BVO intake dwarfs the level of our exposure to other similar chemicals. Adults take in 4,000 times more BVO than PBDEs on average, for example, while kids get about 1,000 times more.
Is BVO FDA-approved?
In 1958, the FDA said BVO was generally safe to use, but it changed its mind in the 1970s, giving BVO "interim" status. Interim status means beverage manufacturers can use it in limited amounts pending the outcome of further studies. Those studies have never been done, leaving the ingredient in limbo for more than 30 years.
It's allowed to be used at a level not to exceed 15 parts per million.
"It's used in much lower amounts, about 8 parts per million," Shelke says, "However, this rule was made at a time when sodas were a treat, in the 1950s, and not part of the daily diet."
"So the rules were absolutely relevant then," she says. "But today, the way consumers drink sodas today is very different." And she thinks the rules may need to be revisited.
Other countries are playing it safer. BVO is banned as a food additive in Japan, India, and the European Union.
What products contain BVO?
BVO is in some citrus soft drinks including Mountain Dew, Squirt, Fresca, and Fanta. It's also in sports drinks like Powerade and some pre-mixed cocktails.
Following recent news articles and an online petition, PepsiCo said it would remove BVO from Gatorade.
"While our products are safe, we are making this change because we know that some consumers have a negative perception of BVO in Gatorade," says Pepsi in an emailed statement to WebMD.
They expect to have the reformulated product on store shelves in a few months.
It's still unclear whether they will remove BVO from their other products, like Mountain Dew.
Other beverage companies have not followed suit.