Brominated vegetable oil is patented as a flame retardant and it's banned in food all over Europe and Japan, but it's on the ingredient list of about 10 percent of sodas in the U.S. It's not in Coca-Cola, but is in Mountain Dew, Fanta Orange, and in some flavors of Powerade and Gatorade.
What brominated vegetable oil (BVO) does to soda is, Coca-Cola explains, "prevent the citrus flavoring oils from floating to the surface in beverages." The fruit flavors that are mixed into a drink would otherwise settle out. What BVO does when it's acting as a flame retardant is not much different: It slows down the chemical reactions that cause a fire.
Safe For Consumption?
The FDA established safety limits for the substance in the 1970s, but Environmental Health News reports about growing concerns that the limit was informed by reports put out by an industry group containing outdated and, as industry-generated information tends to be, less-than-comprehensive data.
After a few extreme soda binges — not too far from what many gamers regularly consume – a few patients have needed medical attention for skin lesions, memory loss and nerve disorders, all symptoms of overexposure to bromine. Other studies suggest that BVO could be building up in human tissues, just like other brominated compounds such as flame retardants. In mouse studies, big doses caused reproductive and behavioral problems.
EHN explains that BVO was pulled from the Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) list for flavor additives in 1970, "bounced back after studies from an industry group from 1971 to 1974 demonstrated a level of safety," at which point the Flavor Extract Manufacturers’ Association (which actually exists—not to be confused with the government agency FEMA) "petitioned the FDA to get BVO back in fruit-flavored beverages, this time as a stabilizer, which is its role today."
Interim Approval -- For More Than 30 Years
Today, more than 30 years (and much animal testing, including on pigs and beagles) later, the approval status for BVO is still listed as interim. EHN reports that changing that status would be expensive and quotes FDA spokesman Douglas Karas saying it "is not a public health priority for the agency at this time."
With BVO banned in so many countries, there are feasible alternatives. And that brings us to the unsurprising but disturbing note on which the EHN story ends:
Wim Thielemans, a chemical engineer at the University of Nottingham in the United Kingdom, said since the alternatives are already used in Europe "their performance must be acceptable, if not comparable, to the U.S.-used brominated systems." That means "the main driver for not replacing them may be cost," he said.
"It is a North American problem," Vetter added. "In the E.U., BVO will never be permitted."