The curious case of Brominated Vegetable Oil

Posted by
December 27, 2011

One of the first food additives I ever reported on, back in the early ’90s, was brominated vegetable oil, or BVO.  I quite incidentally learned of BVO while researching something else — the highly toxic, ozone-depleting fumigant methyl bromide.

The first thing I learned about BVO, which serves the super-important purpose of keeping  flavoring oils “homogenized” and thus unclouded in some drinks and sodas, was that it had been banned in India. BVO also led me to meet Citizens for Health Chairman Jim Turner, although in a most roundabout way.

My main method of research back in those now seemingly ancient pre-Google, pre-Internet days consisted of making repeated phone calls to the Food and Drug Administration  for studies and other materials. At first, the FDA wasn’t very forthcoming with the details on BVO, but eventually, my persistent inquiries paid off when I was contacted by a staffer who said she had found a document (while moving her desk, as it happened) that I might find very interesting. It was a 21-year-old letter concerning BVO from none other than Jim Turner. She faxed me the letter, and I called Jim that same day.

The letter concerned a lawsuit that Jim and Mike Jacobson, director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), had filed against the FDA to prohibit BVO use in the ’70s, shortly after Jim’s book, The Chemical Feast: The Nader Report on the Food and Drug Administration, had come out. BVO had been shown to cause heart damage in research animals, and Jim’s lawsuit asked that the chemical be removed from food until further studies established its safety. But instead of simply prohibiting the use of BVO, the judge in the case created a whole new category for it: food additives permitted in food or in contact with food on an interim basis pending additional study. At the time, this “interim” list was intended to be exactly that, temporary. BVO was given two years to meet the safety requirements of the law. That was in 1977.

In the ensuing years, BVO has been banned not only in India, but in Europe and Japan as well. But here in the U.S., this potentially heart-harmful ingredient still is sitting (like Poe’s Raven) on the FDA’s “interim” list – and can still be found in sodas and drinks containing citrus oils such as Mountain Dew, Fanta Orange, some Gatorade drinks and Sunkist Pineapple. Somehow, BVO has managed to remain in regulatory limbo for over 30 years.

Recently, however,  it’s started to receive some media attention due to its similarity to toxic brominated flame retardants, such as a recent article in Environmental Health News which mentions patents granted this year to Dow Global Technologies for a brominated fatty acid-based flame retardant (as well as a 1967 patent held by Koppers, Inc.). And while scant studies have been done on the health effects of BVO, it’s known that bominated compounds build up in in humans, animals and the environment. (For example, PBDE, a brominated fire retardant, has been detected worldwide in dozens of species of freshwater and marine fish, birds, reindeer, bird eggs and even whales.)

While the FDA has set a “safe limit” for BVO at 15 parts per million, the 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.

The beverage industry, of course, maintains all is well with BVO, and that the additive is FDA- approved even though a verdict on its safety has been indefinitely postponed. The Gatorade FAQ, while explaining why the drink contains no high fructose corn syrup and that “caffeine has no place in Gatorade products,” only says that BVO “does not contribute any fat calories.”

But, as Jim Turner said in his introduction to a book on the herb stevia  that I co-authored in 1996, “In this environment of entwined relationships between food regulators, food manufactures and the purveyors of food information to the public, consumers need to look to other sources of help.”

Of course, back when he said that, it was a lot harder to access such sources than it now is, thanks to the technologies now at our fingertips. But one thing that has not changed in the intervening decade and a half  are those “entwined relationships.” And that’s why all of us as consumers need to stop relying on the assurances of people with a vested interest in the status quo (whether they represent industry or government), and to “uncloud” our own knowledge of food additives and their effects  – just like BVO is supposed to do for the appearance of certain soft drinks.