When Sarah Kavanagh, now 16, wanted to have a cool drink after spending time outside on a hot day in Mississippi last year, she reached for a Gatorade. But before she took a sip, Sarah, who's a vegan, checked the ingredient label. One item in particular caught her eye: brominated vegetable oil, or BVO.
Curious, she Googled it and discovered an eye-popping list of negative side effects. Forgoing the Gatorade, Sarah instead headed to Change.org to start a petition in the hopes that she could persuade PepsiCo, the company that makes Gatorade, to remove the BVO.
"I started the petition on Change.org because I found out brominated vegetable oil is linked to lots of health problems, and it's banned in Europe and Japan," she told SHAPE. "It's just shocking to know that some of the biggest, most trusted companies would use something like that."
She's in luck: Last Friday PepsiCo announced that it will be removing BVO from its Gatorade products, although Molly Carter, a Gatorade spokesperson, told the New York Times that the company had been testing alternatives for about a year, due in part to customer feedback the company had received, but that the decision was not made in response to the teen's petition. Regardless, Sarah says she's happy that PepsiCo heard and listened to its customers' pleas.
"It's really inspiring to know that anybody can make a difference," she says. "We need to believe in ourselves. Companies listen to consumers because they wouldn't exist without us!"
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Although it once had GRAS (generally recognized as safe) status, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) removed BVO from the GRAS list in 1970 after a Canadian study showed that it can cause cardiotoxicity (heart or muscle damage) in certain doses, FDA spokesperson Shelly Burgess told SHAPE in an email. Pending other studies, the removal from the list was supposed to have been temporary, but 35 years later, it still stands.
"The FDA is aware that some consumers may have concerns about BVO," Burgess says. "But based on the science available, the FDA has determined that it is safe and presents no health risks at the permitted level of 15 parts per million."
However, Mike Jacobson, executive director of the food watchdog group Center for Science in the Public Interest disagrees, saying that there's not enough published research to definitively say one way or the other whether BVO causes harm.
"BVO is poorly tested and possibly dangerous," Jacobson says. "It's frustrating that the FDA has long been reluctant to tackle health problems in the food supply. Removing the BVO from Gatorade is a tiny, baby step forward, but it won't move the needle on public health."
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It's true that there hasn't been a significant amount of research on BVO, but the main ingredient in it, bromine, is a central nervous system depressant that's been linked to negative health effects when consumed in large quantities, says Mary Hartley, R.D.
"BVO leaves residues in the body’s fatty tissues, including the brain, liver, and other organs," Hartley says. "It can cause a wide variety of symtoms, such as headaches, vision problems, loss of coordination, and skin rashes. Animal studies show that BVO is transferred from mother's milk to a nursing infant, which, in theory, could cause heart lesions, fatty changes in the liver, impaired growth, and behavioral problems."
An extensive article published in the journal Scientific American in 2011 supports that claim, citing that BVO build-up could lead to altered thyroid hormones, neurological problems, early onset of puberty, and impaired fertility. Moreover, BVO is banned in more than 100 countries.
PepsiCo said it will be replacing the BVO in Gatorade with sucrose acetate isobutyrate (SAIB), a derivative of sugar cane, which has GRAS status and is used internationally to stabilize emulsions and flavoring oils in products. However, despite the fact that PepsiCo is removing BVO from Gatorade, the company has said that it does not plan to remove it from Mountain Dew. The additive can also be found in other fruit-flavored beverages including Fanta Orange, Fresca, Squirt, Powerade, and Sunkist Peach Soda.
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Luckily, it's easy to minimize your exposure to BVO: Simply make sugary sodas an occasional treat, or better yet, phase them out of your diet completely. "There are no reasons to choose any of these fruit-flavored drinks, but if you are going to drink them, try not to consume large quantities, especially if you're breastfeeding," Hartley says.