A substance patented as a flame retardant and banned as a food ingredient throughout Europe and in Japan is present in 10% of all soft drinks in the US. The December 12, 2011 issue of Environmental Health News reviews the history of this toxic ingredient, including the fact that “extreme soda binges – not too far from what many video gamers regularly consume” have resulted in skin lesions, memory loss and nerve disorders.
Fruit-flavored flame retardant
Mountain Dew, Fanta Orange, Squirt, some flavors of Gatorade and Powerade, as well as other fruit-flavored beverages contain brominated vegetable oil (BVO). On the Nutrition Connection page of its website, the Coca-Cola Company, which manufactures Fanta, defines BVO’s as “stabilizers to prevent the citrus flavoring oils from floating to the surface in beverages.” In other words, as Environmental Health News explains, BVO weighs down the citrus flavoring so that it mixes with the other soda ingredients, just as flame retardants slow down the chemical reactions which can cause fires.
FDA says safe?
Brominated vegetable oil is derived from soybean or corn and contains bromine atoms. BVO was removed from the FDA’s “Generally Recognized as Safe List” for flavor additives in 1970. The Flavor Extract Manufacturers’ Association subsequently petitioned to get BVO re-approved, this time as a stabilizer rather than a flavor additive. Following the submission of industry-generated studies showing that BVO was harmless when present in soft drinks within “safe limits.” The FDA in 1977 granted “interim approval” for use of the substance, limiting it to 15 parts per million. That interim has so far lasted 30 years. The Environmental Health News article quotes an FDA spokesperson as saying that re-examining the status of BVO “is not a public health priority for the agency at this time.”
Many critics in the past have likened the reliance of governmental watchdog agencies like the FDA on industry studies to “the fox guarding the henhouse.” One therefore might have cause to wonder about the scientific accuracy of those 1970s industry-generated data which persuaded the FDA to re-approve BVO. Even if those studies were accurate, toxicity testing has improved significantly in the past three decades.
Both animal research and human studies of bromine have demonstrated its toxicity, finding links to lowered fertility, early puberty onset and impaired neurological development. Studies have also shown that bromine builds up in the heart, liver and fat tissue. The accumulation may also appear in breast milk. Because of this evidence, some health safety experts are concerned about bromine’s use even as a flame retardant which can be present in many household items.
Given the high levels of soda many people consume in the US, its presence in soft drinks is alarming. Health experts point in particular to the gamer culture where people may play video games for hours, drinking soft drinks throughout an extended session of gaming. Some soft drink companies, such as Mountain Dew, even offer game tie-ins, awarding players bonus points for drinking more of the soda.
Chemicals, Dollars and Health
The perspective of other countries on this US public health concern offers some interesting perspective. Wim Thielemans, a chemical engineer at the University of Nottingham in the United Kingdom, points out soda manufacturers use natural hydrocolloids to perform BVO’s emulsification function in countries where BVO is banned. Since there are viable alternatives to BVO’s, Thielmans speculates that “the main driver for not replacing them may be cost.”
BVO’s are another in a long list of reasons to avoid drinking sodas, and to teach your children to appreciate healthier beverages. In addition to the high fructose corn syrup of “regular” sodas or aspartame in diet drinks, both of which bring a host of health risks, these are one more poison in the cocktail of chemicals contained in soda.