A New York Times article reports on the efforts made by a Mississippi teen to remove a commonly used drink ingredient from various products. The ingredient in question,known as brominated vegetable oil (BVO), acts as an emulsifier in various drinks to keep flavoring evenly distributed throughout; lack of brominated vegetable oil would cause the flavoring to float to the surface. About 10 percent of sodas and sports drinks in the U.S. contain this ingredient.
The European Union has long imposed a ban on BVO, requiring other ingredients be substituted for it. Likewise, Japan and India have banned the use of brominated vegetable oil in certain foods and drinks. U.S. companies using the ingredient cite the costliness of substituting the additive with another ingredient.
The FDA considers BVO as a safe food ingredient, although certain complications such as neurological disorders and altered thyroid hormones have been observed. Brominated vegetable oil contains bromine, which can be found in some flame retardants used in products such as upholstered furniture and children’s products. Research has indicated that these flame retardants can build up in the body and breast milk. Animal and some human studies have linked them to neurological impairment, reduced fertility, changes in thyroid hormones and puberty at an earlier age.
The use of brominated vegetable oil has been called into question at various points in the last three decades, but to date, no efforts have managed to remove the ingredient from drinks in the United States. BVO has been used as an ingredient in food since the 1930s, before Congressional amendment of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act to regulate food additives in the 1950s. Congress made it a point to exempt ingredients already approved by the FDA or considered by other non-agency food experts as “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS). The GRAS exemption permits food companies to pick experts that can attest to the safety of these ingredients. According to a Pew Charitable Trust study, as a result, approximately 10,000 chemicals are allowed to be added to foods, about 3,000 of which have never been reviewed for safety by the FDA. These items generally do not come up for review by the FDA until there are safety concerns brought forth by the public.
The FDA is not oblivious to the renewed safety concerns regarding BVO. It took the ingredient off its own list of substances “generally recognized as safe” back in 1970, after the Flavor and Extract Manufacturers Association revoked its approval of BVO. The group’s expert panel evaluates the safety of flavoring substances added to food and if it rules something is “generally recognized as safe,” the FDA agrees. Based on some preliminary studies in the mid-1970s, the FDA made an interim ruling in 1977 that noted BVO was considered safe up to 15 parts per million. No further testing has been done to support this ruling, and the agency noted that BVO was not on its list of follow-up studies because of lack of resources.