The ‘brominated brothers’: one partly down, one still standing

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March 17, 2015


Next on the Food Identity Theft list of additives to avoid that comprise our annual countdown to  “Read Your Labels” Day are the two we call “the brominated brothers”  brominated vegetable oil and potassium bromate, which we’ve now moved down to the seventh and eighth positions.

Number 7: Brominated vegetable oil (BVO)

Ten months ago, much was made of a promise by the nation’s two largest soft drink makers, the Coca-Cola and Pepsi-Cola companies, to drop brominated vegetable oil, the sole purpose of which is to keep certain kinds of beverages from appearing cloudy. The decision  by the two companies to get rid of this unhealthy ingredient, which was already banned by the European Union, India and Japan, was a result of petitions launched on the website by Sarah Kavanagh, a Mississippi teen, that amassed more than 200,000 signatures and ensuing pressure from consumers, augmented by television’s Dr. Oz, who called BVO his “number one shocking health threat in your food” The affected products include the soft drinks Fanta and Fresca, put out by Coke, and Pepsi’s Mountain Dew and Amp energy drinks.

Following those announcements, we said BVO would remain on our list of the ten most undesirable food additives “for the time being, until it’s actually been removed from the products in question.”

So why are we still listing it?  Well, because so far, those promises have only been partly kept.

While a scan of products in our local supermarket found no sign of BVO in any of the Fanta and Fresca varieties on the shelf (or in Coke’s energy drink Powerade, the subject of another petition launched by Kavanagh), it was still listed as an ingredient in the popular soda brand Mountain Dew.

So once again, here’s the “rap sheet on BVO:

It isn’t just that BVO is used as a flame retardant, which Kavanagh noted in her petition and which alarmed a lot of consumers. This additive, which is used to keep beverages from appearing cloudy, accumulates in fatty tissue and has been shown to cause heart damage in research animals. In fact, it has never actually been approved by the Food and Drug Administration, where its status has been in limbo for more than three decades.

And if that’s not enough, it was described by the website Marketing Daily as “a synthetic chemical formed by bonding vegetable oil to bromine,” which is “a heavy, volatile, mobile, dangerous reddish-brown liquid,” according to

Then there’s this from the holistic website “All bromines are endocrine disruptors (that) can also interfere with iodine absorption by the thyroid, breast tissue and prostate tissue, causing nutritional deficiencies which can promote cancer.”

There’s also a frightening bit of information that we featured in a blog post at the end of 2011:

“While the FDA has set a ‘safe limit’ for BVO at 15 parts per million, (an) Environmental Health News article describes several cases of bromine poisoning in humans following BVO-containing soda binges, including a 1997 report of ‘severe bromine intoxication’ in a patient who drank two or more liters of orange sodas every day.”

In other words, this innocent-sounding additive is nothing that the FDA should ever have allowed to be added to beverages in the first place.

But despite its safety status having remained in limbo all these years   — and a lawsuit that Citizens for Health Board Chair Jim Turner and Michael Jacobson, director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), filed against the FDA to prohibit BVO use back in the 1970s – the federal regulators have still not taken steps to order its removal from food (or more specifically, beverages).


Number 8: Potassium bromate

Used to “improve” flour and make more uniform, attractive bakery products, potassium bromate (or bromated flour) has been on the list of carcinogens in California since 1991. And while many other countries have banned its use entirely, the Food and Drug Administration  has merely asked the baking industry to voluntarily stop using it.

According to the American Bakers Association, if potassium bromate is used “properly” no detectable residues will be found; however, if too much is used, or any number of other procedures are not followed (such as proper temperature settings or baking time) a residue of this carcinogenic additive will end up in the finished product.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) has also pointed out that FDA tests going back to 1992 and 1998 found levels of bromate in “several dozen baked goods” that would be “considered unsafe by the agency (FDA).” One sample, CSPI noted in a press release “had almost 1,000 times the detection limit.”

In 1999 CSPI submitted a petition to the Food and Drug Administration to ban this additive, saying that “The FDA has known since 1982 that potassium bromate can cause tumors of the kidney, thyroid and other organs in animals,” with additional studies over the years all confirming its toxic properties.

While some commercial brands have replaced potassium bromate with other dough-enhancing additives, brominated flour is still widely used in restaurants and bakeries. General Mills, makers of Pillsbury and Gold Medal brand flours, offers no less than 22 different brominated flours at its “professional baking solutions” site. Bottom line: if a bakery can’t tell you what ingredients it uses in making its cakes, cookies and bread, it’s time to find another bakery. The oddest product that we found potassium bromate in – considering its big “benefit” is to promote yeast rising — was New York brand flatbreads.

Stay tuned for the rest of our Read Your Labels Day countdown – as well as a new addition to the list.