Preventive Medicine Column

Dr. David L. Katz

Brominated vegetable oil is the ingredient a teenage girl noticed in her Gatorade.  Her investigation revealed potential health risks associated with BVO, and she started an on-line petition to get this apparently alarming ingredient out of her sports drink.  Pepsico, which owns Gatorade, is in fact doing so– although they contend that had been in the works for some time, and has nothing particularly to do with the petition.

Brominated vegetable oil has been used in the making of soft drinks in the U.S. since the 1930s.  It received the designation “generally recognized as safe” from the U.S. FDA in 1958, but this was revised in 1970, at which time restrictions were placed on the amount that can be used in food.  The ingredient is now found in a variety of citrus-flavored beverages, including, but not limited to: Gatorade, Mountain Dew, Powerade, Fanta, and Fresca.

Bromine is used to increase the weight of the oil so it doesn’t rise to the top, and the oil then serves to keep fat-soluble citrus flavors in suspension.   The result is probably an enhancement of both the appearance of the drink, and perhaps the taste.

BVO has made headlines in part because Ms. Kavanagh found that the same ingredient is used in a flame retardant.  The idea that a compound found in a beverage could be used to battle fires was, apparently, alarming.

It’s true that BVO can be used in a flame retardant, but I’m not sure how relevant that really is.  Elements that are an essential part of the human body can be mixed in some pretty toxic combinations as well.  Some of what we are made of can be used to make pesticides, for instance, all depending on doses and what else is in the mix.  The human body contains quite a bit of chloride- derived from the same element used to disinfect our swimming pools.

Is BVO actually dangerous?  Possibly.  Reviewing the relevant literature, I could find only one case of harm linked to bromine in soft drinks, reported in 1997.  A man consuming 2 to 4 liters a day of citrus-flavored soft drinks developed a neurological condition due to bromine excess.  He was eventually diagnosed, treated, and recovered.

I could find no other evidence of documented harm in people, although that of course does not rule it out.  But since the ingredient has been in our beverages for nearly 100 years, we’ve had plenty of time to see harmful effects if they were occurring at a meaningful level.  If they are occurring, they are subtle enough to fly mostly under the radar.

The other cases of bromine-related harm I could find were all associated with the use of medication providing the substance in more concentrated doses.  Speaking of dose, BVO is used in fruit-flavored soft drinks in amounts so tiny it often need not even be listed among the ingredients.  Whereas most ingredients are measured in grams or milligrams, BVO is measured in the vanishingly smaller ‘parts per million.’

Since much of the focus has been on Gatorade, which is taking BVO out of its mix, I checked on the overall composition of their original ‘Perform’ series drink.  In 12 ounces, it has 80 calories, 160 mg of sodium, and 21 grams of sugar.

Which leads to the moral of this story.  If that composition is the forest, then BVO has us all barking up the wrong tree.

While any harms of BVO are speculative, the public health toll of excess calories and sugar is well established.  The question for the teenage girl concerned enough about ingredients to investigate BVO is: why was she drinking a sugar-sweetened, artificially flavored beverage in the first place?  There is no BVO added to water- so we are not dependent on any company to take it out.

I have long noted that we distort risks– trivializing those we feel we can control (such as our sugar intake, or driving too fast, or texting while driving), and exaggerating those we feel we cannot (such as BVO).  The Pulitzer-prize winning author Jared Diamond recently made that same point in the New Your Times.

I don’t drink any of the products that contain BVO- and wouldn’t drink them if they didn’t, either.  If you are really drinking enough of the sugar (or artificially) sweetened, citrus-flavored beverages in question to be at any genuine risk of harm from BVO, then my view is: you’ve got bigger, far better documented things to worry about!




Dr. David L. Katz;