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Brominated Vegetable Oil Q&A

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WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

Jan. 30, 2013 -- PepsiCo recently announced it would remove brominated vegetable oil (BVO) from its Gatorade drinks in response to customer concerns.  

Just what is BVO? And what is it doing in your sports drink?

To learn more, we reached out to food chemists Kantha Shelke, PhD, a Chicago scientist who consults with food companies to develop new products, and Walter Vetter, PhD, who is studying BVO at the University of Hohenheim in Germany.

What is BVO?

Brominated vegetable oil is a synthetic chemical that is created when vegetable oil is bonded to the element bromine. Bromine is heavy, and it keeps the oil from floating to the top of water-based solutions, like soft drinks.

Why is BVO in some kinds of drinks?

Citrus flavors -- orange, lemon, lime, and grapefruit -- are oily. “When you put them on a soda or in a beverage, they tend to sit on top of the drink. They are not dispersed all the way through,” Shelke says. BVO acts as an emulsifier, meaning it helps the citrus flavors mix better in the soft drink. Drinks that contain BVO usually look hazy or cloudy.

Why are there concerns about BVO?

In very high amounts drunk over a long period of time, BVO can build up in the body and cause toxic effects.

In 1997, doctors were stumped by the case of a man who came to the emergency room with headaches, fatigue, and a loss of muscle coordination and memory. He continued to get worse over time, and eventually he lost the ability to walk. A blood test found sky-high levels of bromide. The source? The man had been drinking between 2 and 4 liters of soda containing brominated vegetable oil every day. He needed dialysis but eventually recovered.

In 2003, doctors treated a man who developed swollen hands with oozing sores. They diagnosed a rare case of the skin condition bromoderma after blood tests revealed his bromine was about twice normal limits. The man admitted drinking about 8 liters of Ruby Red Squirt, which contains BVO, each day.

High amounts of bromine can also cause skin breakouts known as halogen acne.

What about lower levels?

It’s not known whether BVO might pose health concerns at the low levels most people take in, Vetter says.

But he and others think the food additive needs further study.

That’s because it’s in the same chemical family as flame-retardants like polybrominated diphenyl ether (PBDE).

Scientists are studying brominated flame retardants because blood tests show that these chemicals can build up in our bodies. Early studies suggest that flame-retardant chemicals disrupt normal hormone function, leading to problems with brain development in children, fertility, thyroid function, and possibly cancer.

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