A petition that Mississippi teenager Sarah Kavanagh had launched in November seems to have changed at least one major beverage manufacturer’s policy. On January 25, responding to consumer concerns, PepsiCo announced that it will remove brominated vegetable oil, an emulsifier, from citrus-flavored Gatorade.
However the company said the reformulation project was sparked by earlier customer complaints, without stating the specifics on the complaints. The online petition collected more than 200,000 signers before being taken down.
The concern is centered on an ingredient called BYO or brominated vegetable oil. If you look on some Gatorade bottles especially the orange, lemon and other citrus flavors you may still see it listed as an ingredient. A food manufacturer is prefers this oil over regular vegetable oil to prevent the oil from floating to the top of the product.
Why did this become a concern suddenly, in 2013? In Sarah’s own words from Change.org, where her petition was launched:
"I’m naturally a curious and argumentative person doing things like debate team in school. I also love sports like volleyball, and I always believed Gatorade when they said stuff in their ads about how it's good to drink when exercising. And, just like most people, I care about my health. So, as I was sitting at home the other day drinking an Orange Gatorade, I decided to look up some of the ingredients.
"The last ingredient is 'brominated vegetable oil,' which has been banned in Japan and the European Union. That means, #1 it’s not necessary to make Gatorade, and #2 there is enough information out there that entire countries have banned this chemical product."
Sarah concluded: "According to Scientific American, BVO has been patented as a flame retardant and is found in some beverages including some flavors of Gatorade. It is 'under intense scrutiny because research has shown that they are building up in people's bodies, including breast milk, around the world.' The same article also mentions that there are 'links to impaired neurological development, reduced fertility, early onset of puberty and altered thyroid hormones.'"
I did some additional research. Bromine is a halogen and displaces iodine, which may depress thyroid function. Evidence for this has been extrapolated from pre-1975 cases where bromine-containing sedatives resulted in emergency room visits and incorrect diagnoses of psychosis and brain damage due to side effects such as depression, memory loss, hallucinations, violent tendencies, seizures, cerebral atrophy, acute irritability, tremors, ataxia, confusion, loss of peripheral vision, slurred speech, stupor, tendon reflex changes, photophobia due to enlarged pupils, and extensor plantar responses. BVO has been used by the soft drink industry since 1931.
Gatorade spokesperson Molly Carter has been quoted as responding, “While our products are safe, we are making this change because we know that some consumers have a negative perception of BVO in Gatorade, despite being permitted for use in North American and Latin American countries. As part of this process, we began working on an alternative ingredient to BVO for the few Gatorade flavors that contain BVO more than a year ago.” She explained that BVO will be replaced with sucrose acetate isobutyrate, “one of the flavor emulsifiers we use internationally.”
Carter said there is no current plan to remove BVO from PepsiCo’s Mountain Dew but the company is always evaluating “formulas to ensure they meet the high standards our consumers expect.”
Coca-Cola, which uses the chemical in Orange Fanta and Powerade, said in a statement that the ingredient improves the stability of some products by preventing ingredients from separating. “While we are confident in the safety of our beverages, we continuously look for ways to improve our products and take consumers’ concerns into account,” the statement said.