FDA proposes ban on potentially harmful ingredient found in some sodas

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The US Food and Drug Administration has proposed revoking its regulation authorizing the nationwide use of brominated vegetable oil, or BVO, as an additive in food.

The FDA’s decision comes after California banned the ingredient in October by passing the California Food Safety Act, the first state law in the United States to ban brominated vegetable oil. The additive is already banned in Europe and Japan.

“The agency concluded that the intended use of BVO in food is no longer considered safe after the results of studies conducted in collaboration with the National Institutes of Health … found the potential for adverse health effects in humans,” said James Jones, the FDA’s deputy commissioner for human foods, in a statement.

Brominated vegetable oil — vegetable oil modified by bromine, a pungent, deep red oily chemical — is used as an emulsifier in citrus-flavored beverages to keep the flavoring from separating and floating to the top. Bromine is also commonly used in flame retardants.

It’s possible that dozens of products — mostly sodas — use brominated vegetable oil as an ingredient, according to the Eat Well Guide by the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit research and advocacy group that focuses on consumer health, toxic chemicals and pollutants.

The low number of products containing this ingredient is due to past restrictions by the FDA.

“In 1970, the FDA determined BVO was no longer ‘Generally Recognized as Safe’ … and began overseeing its use under our food additive regulations,” Jones said in a statement. “Over the years many beverage makers reformulated their products to replace BVO with an alternative ingredient, and today, few beverages in the U.S. contain BVO.”

Additionally, a 2012 petition with more than 200,000 signatures also brought attention to health concerns, according to an EWG news release. It also said many companies eliminated it from consumer products due to market pressure.

How brominated vegetable oil could harm health

Brominated vegetable oil has been linked to health hazards including nervous system damage, headaches, skin and mucous membrane irritation, fatigue, and loss of muscle coordination and memory, according to the EWG. The ingredient can also accumulate in the body over time.

The studies motivating the FDA’s decision were conducted in animals, but the observed negative health effects were at levels closely approximating real-world human exposure, according to a news release. One harm some research found is toxic effects on the thyroid gland, which produces hormones critical for the regulation of blood pressure, heart rate, body temperature and metabolism.

“Today’s announcement will ensure everyone has access to products that don’t contain BVO,” Scott Faber, the EWG’s senior vice president for government affairs, said in a statement.

Jones of the FDA said the proposed ban “is an example of how the agency monitors emerging evidence and, as needed, conducts scientific research to investigate safety related questions, and takes regulatory action when the science does not support the continued safe use of additives in foods.”

A final decision is yet to come — following reception of comments through January 17, 2024, and a review process — but if you want to avoid consuming brominated vegetable oil until then, check the ingredients lists of products before you buy them.

Correction: An earlier version of this story gave the incorrect count of the number of products on the market that contain BVO.

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