An ongoing debate surrounding the use of brominated vegetable oil (BVO) in citrus-flavored sodas has recently gained momentum. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has proposed to revoke the registration of BVO due to concerns raised by toxicology studies. This move reflects the FDA’s commitment to monitoring emerging evidence and taking regulatory action when the science does not support the continued safe use of additives in foods. While BVO has been used as an emulsifying agent in sodas since the 1930s, recent studies suggest potential risks associated with its consumption. This article aims to critically evaluate the safety of BVO and the implications of its potential ban.
BVO, a modified vegetable oil, is used in citrus-flavored sodas to ensure that the tangy taste is evenly mixed throughout the beverage. By attaching a dozen bromine atoms to a triglyceride, a dense oil is created that floats uniformly in water, preventing the flavoring agents from separating. While this functionality has made BVO a popular ingredient in the soda industry for several decades, its utility is overshadowed by potential health risks.
Animal studies have suggested that BVO can accumulate in our fat tissues, raising concerns about its long-term effects on human health. Bromine, one of the key components of BVO, has the potential to interfere with the functioning of the thyroid gland by inhibiting the uptake of iodine. As a result, health authorities around the world, including those in India, Japan, and the European Union, have already banned the use of BVO in food products. California joined this list of prohibitionists last October, with legislation set to go into effect in 2027.
Contrary to international bans, the FDA has relied on its classification of BVO as “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS) since the 1950s. However, the FDA’s perception shifted in the 1960s when doubts were raised about the potential toxicity of BVO. Consequently, the FDA temporarily restricted its use to concentrations no greater than 15 parts per million exclusively in citrus-flavored drinks. Gathering data on the risks associated with even these small amounts of BVO has proven challenging, as it requires long-term studies involving a sizable sample of individuals.
Over time, evidence against the safety of BVO has accumulated. A UK study in the 1970s found bromine accumulating in human tissues, while subsequent animal studies linked high concentrations of BVO to heart and behavioral problems. Finally, based on recent animal studies that reflect the relative concentrations of BVO commonly consumed by humans, the FDA has yielded to mounting evidence and expressed support for a complete ban on its use.
Fortunately, major soda companies such as PepsiCo and Coca-Cola Co. have already taken steps to phase out BVO from their products over the past decade. Consequently, only a few beverages in the US currently contain BVO. This proactive approach from industry leaders suggests that suitable alternatives to BVO have already been identified, easing the transition away from the controversial ingredient.
The proposed ban on BVO may herald a shift in the FDA’s approach to food additives. James Jones, FDA deputy commissioner for human foods, has announced plans to review regulations authorizing the use of certain food additives, with the intention of automatically prohibiting the approval of any food coloring agents found to cause cancer in humans or animals. This move reflects a desire for a more efficient and responsive bureaucratic process.
However, the reclassification of BVO by the FDA is still subject to a comprehensive review process that is expected to conclude no earlier than 2024. Despite this extended timeline, the availability of suitable alternatives to BVO suggests that the ingredient is unlikely to be missed.
The proposed ban on BVO in the US highlights the importance of continuously evaluating the safety of food additives. Through monitoring emerging evidence and conducting scientific research, the FDA aims to protect public health by taking regulatory action against additives that lack sufficient evidence of safety. The case of BVO serves as a reminder that public health concerns should take priority, even when an ingredient has been in common use for many years. As the debate regarding BVO continues, industry leaders have already taken proactive steps to phase out its use, demonstrating a commitment to consumer safety.