Brominated vegetable oil (BVO) has been “called out” as an ingredient in a flame retardant after a young girl noted it on the Gatorade ingredient list and did some investigating. It’s true that BVO can be used in a flame retardant, but I’m not sure it’s all that relevant. Elements that are an essential part of the human body can be mixed in some pretty toxic combinations as well. Some of what we are made of can be used to make pesticides and insecticides and other poisons, all depending on doses and what else is in the mix.
Is brominated vegetable oil dangerous? Possibly. Reviewing the relevant literature, I could find one case of harm linked to bromine in soft drinks, reported in 1997. A man consuming two to four liters a day of citrus-flavored soft drinks developed a neurological condition due to bromine excess. He was eventually diagnosed and treated, and he recovered.
I could find no other evidence of documented harm in people, although that of course does not rule it out. But since the ingredient has been in our beverages for nearly 100 years, we’ve had plenty of time to see harmful effects if they were occurring at a meaningful level. If they are occurring, they are subtle enough to fly mostly under the radar.
Since much recent focus about BVO has been on Gatorade, which is taking BVO out of its mix, I checked on the overall composition of its original Perform series drink. In 12 ounces, it has 80 calories, 160 mg of sodium, and 21 grams of sugar. I really don’t think we need BVO in this mix to raise concerns about it.
And that, frankly, is where I land. Animal studies suggest some possibility of harm from BVO. Bromine toxicity is known to occur in people, generally resulting from medications that contain bromine in much higher concentrations than soft drinks. So the case can be made for “why take a chance?” If we can get rid of the BVO, we might as well.
But while any harms of BVO are speculative, the public health toll of excess calories and sugar is well established. The question for the teenage girl concerned enough about ingredients to investigate BVO is why was she drinking a sugar-sweetened beverage in the first place? There is no BVO added to water.
I have long noted that we distort risks -- trivializing those we feel we can control (such as our sugar intake, or driving too fast, or texting while driving), and exaggerating those we feel we cannot (such as BVO).