June 2 2014
Inflamed Debate Over a Soda Additive
A recent announcement by Coca-Cola and PepsiCo that these companies are pulling the ingredient brominated vegetable oil (BVO) out of their soft drinks is no big surprise. It’s yet another example of how junk science and media hype forces needless product reformulations. While such actions don’t make us safer or healthier, they promise to make us poorer.
This case started with a 2013 petition on Change.org, pushed by a well-intentioned teenager who was appalled to learn that some sports drinks, particularly Gatorade, contained a “flame retardant” chemical, i.e., BVO.
PepsiCo quickly agreed to remove it from Gatorade, which used it to keep the color and flavors distributed in the drink. But company representatives said they would continue its use in Mountain Dew, noting that the substance is safe.
That put PepsiCo and every other company using the chemical in a precarious position. Rather than get credit for removing it from Gatorade, PepsiCo garnered criticism from media, bloggers, activists and others, who whined about the continued use of this allegedly “dangerous” and “toxic” substance.
Yet simply because something resists flames does not mean it’s dangerous. Remember, water is a really good flame retardant. It won’t kill you if you have a few glasses, but it will kill you if you drink too much at one time, producing hyponatremia or “water intoxification.”
Millions of people have consumed drinks containing BVO, which has been added to packaged drinks since 1931. If there were dire risks, don’t you think we’d see some evidence? Over this 83-year history, there are few cases of anyone suffering ill effects. There appears to be just a couple of documented cases.
In both instances, the subject drank a very large volume of BVO-containing drinks on a daily basis. One case reported in 2003 involved an individual who drank eight liters of a beverage called Ruby Red Squirt daily for several months and the other drank two to four liters of cola daily (duration unspecified).
The Ruby Red Squirt drinker suffered with bromoderma or bromide intoxification, which caused “ulcerated, erythematous nodules” (red, irritated ulcers) on his hands. He recovered after discontinuing high consumption of Ruby Red Squirt.
The cola drinker suffered more serious impacts with “headache, fatigue, ataxia and memory loss which progressed over 30 days,” as noted in the scientific literature in 1997. He improved after undergoing hemodialysis.
Yet a 2013 article in Scientific American suggests that BVO is having a much bigger effect. It warns that “gamers” — kids who stay up late playing video games — are at risk for slamming down liters of BVO-containing drinks at night. There are no documented cases of illness to report, though.
In any case, if your kids are up late consuming excessive amounts of any drink or food, you might want to counsel them on the importance of moderation. After all, even eating healthy foods in excess can have drawbacks. For example, excessive apple consumption can create dental problems from the natural acids in the fruit.
BVO appears to be low on the scale of food-related risks, which include things like Salmonella and E.coli. Mother Nature herself produces chemicals in food that pose risks that are magnitudes higher than alleged BVO-related risks.
For example, when we eat potatoes, we consume small amounts of a potentially dangerous chemical called solanine, which some plants create to protect themselves from pests. There are no measurable health effects to humans at low levels, but if the potatoes get too ripe — as evidenced by sprouting and greening — solanine concentrations can reach dangerous levels. There are dozens of documented illnesses, comas, and deaths related to people eating overripe potatoes.
While the risks from excessive consumption of water, apples or overripe potatoes are surely real — and more substantial than that of BVO — we don’t rush to ban them or petition anyone to immediately remove them from the market. We can consume them in moderation, and we can do the same with drinks that contain BVO.
Company representatives may think that replacing BVO will eliminate a public perception problem. However, once businesses invest in alternatives, they can expect anti-chemical food activists to start demonizing the substitute products as well. It’s a vicious and expensive cycle. The costs of such foolishness are eventually passed on to consumers.
That does not mean we shouldn’t re-evaluate food additives periodically. The quick condemnation of products on specious grounds, though, makes no sense.
Angela Logomasini is a senior fellow with the Independent Women’s Forum and the Competitive Enterprise Institute.