Sarah Kavanagh and her little brother were looking forward to the bottles of Gatorade they had put in the refrigerator after playing outdoors one hot, humid afternoon last month in Hattiesburg, Miss.
But before she took a sip, Sarah, a dedicated vegetarian, did what she often does and checked the label to make sure no animal products were in the drink. One ingredient, brominated vegetable oil, caught her eye.
“I knew it probably wasn’t from an animal because it had vegetable in the name, but I still wanted to know what it was, so I Googled it,” Ms. Kavanagh said. “A page popped up with a long list of possible side effects, including neurological disorders and altered thyroid hormones. I didn’t expect that.”
She threw the product away and started a petition on Change.org, a nonprofit Web site, that has almost 200,000 signatures. Ms. Kavanagh, 15, hopes her campaign will persuade PepsiCo, Gatorade’s maker, to consider changing the drink’s formulation.
Jeff Dahncke, a spokesman for PepsiCo, noted that brominated vegetable oil had been deemed safe for consumption by federal regulators. “As standard practice, we constantly evaluate our formulas and ingredients to ensure they comply with federal regulations and meet the high quality standards our consumers and athletes expect — from functionality to great taste,” he said in an e-mail.
In fact, about 10 percent of drinks sold in the United States contain brominated vegetable oil, including Mountain Dew, also made by PepsiCo; Powerade, Fanta Orange and Fresca from Coca-Cola; and Squirt and Sunkist Peach Soda, made by the Dr Pepper Snapple Group.
The ingredient is added often to citrus drinks to help keep the fruit flavoring evenly distributed; without it, the flavoring would separate.
Use of the substance in the United States has been debated for more than three decades, so Ms. Kavanagh’s campaign most likely is quixotic. But the European Union has long banned the substance from foods, requiring use of other ingredients. Japan recently moved to do the same.
“B.V.O. is banned other places in the world, so these companies already have a replacement for it,” Ms. Kavanagh said. “I don’t see why they don’t just make the switch.” To that, companies say the switch would be too costly.
The renewed debate, which has brought attention to the arcane world of additive regulation, comes as consumers show increasing interest in food ingredients and have new tools to learn about them. Walmart’s app, for instance, allows access to lists of ingredients in foods in its stores.
Brominated vegetable oil contains bromine, the element found in brominated flame retardants, used in things like upholstered furniture and children’s products. Research has found brominate flame retardants building up in the body and breast milk, and animal and some human studies have linked them to neurological impairment, reduced fertility, changes in thyroid hormones and puberty at an earlier age.
Limited studies of the effects of brominated vegetable oil in animals and in humans found buildups of bromine in fatty tissues. Rats that ingested large quantities of the substance in their diets developed heart lesions.
Its use in foods dates to the 1930s, well before Congress amended the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act to add regulation of new food additives to the responsibilities of the Food and Drug Administration. But Congress exempted two groups of additives, those already sanctioned by the F.
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