Although soda doesn’t exactly need any help in the Bad Rap Department, it’s gotten yet another assist from a little something called BVO, which stands for brominated vegetable oil. And brominated vegetable oil stands for a potential health hazard, according to an article published this week in Scientific American. Banned in Europe and Japan but used in American sodas for decades, BVO also happens to be patented by chemical companies as a flame retardant.
The reason it’s used in soda is because it acts as an emulsifier that keeps fruity flavorings from separating and floating to the top of the drink. If you’re a connoisseur of Mountain Dew, Sunkist Pineapple, Gatorade Thirst Quencher Orange, Fresca Original Citrus, Squirt, Fanta Orange, or Powerade Strawberry Lemonade, you’re also a connoisseur of BVO.
Back in 1977, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, working from reports from an industry group, set what it considered a “safe” BVO limit in sodas. But as Scientific American reports, some scientists now want to take another look at BVO, which has been found to cause reproductive and behavioral problems in mice when administered in large doses. Although large doses aren’t really an issue for moderate soda drinkers, they are for a select population of binge drinkers. Gamers, for example, are vulnerable thanks to the enormous quantities of soda they consume to fuel their online battles. Some extreme drinkers have ended up in the hospital after binging, suffering from memory loss, nerve disorders, and skin lesions, all of which are symptoms of bromine overexposure.
Scientists are also concerned about the possible effects of BVO on children, 85 percent of whom drink beverages containing sugar or artificial sweeteners at least once a week. Since kids have lower body mass, they get a higher dosage of any chemical that happens to be floating around in soda. And given that studies of brominated flame retardants (the kind that are used to keep your polystyrene couch cushions from going up in smoke) in animals and humans have linked them to stunted neurological development, early-onset puberty, reduced fertility, and thyroid issues, that could be, well, problematic.
Unsurprisingly, soda makers and industry groups say that BVO is perfectly safe, meaning there is absolutely nothing to worry about. Whether or not they’re right, the larger question is whether soda fans—already so adept at ignoring alarming or troubling statistics and gross-out public health campaigns—will notice, much less care. Being fireproof, after all, does have its Darwinian advantages.