Chemical shaming? Coke removes ingredient from Powerade after teen’s on-line petition


Coca-Cola has announced it will remove a controversial ingredient, brominated vegetable oil, from Powerade after a similar move by PepsiCo's Gatorade last year. (Andrew Burton/Getty Images)

I suppose we could call this online chemical shaming. Or just good old fashioned pressure from the marketplace, supply and demand style.

Either way, Coke has one-upped Pepsi in removing the ingredient brominated vegetable oil  (BVO) from Powerade and the rest of its products after a Mississippi teenager's online petition against BVO attracted more than 200,000 signatures.

The ingredient has been linked to fire retardant, but also can apparently cause some nasty health problems when consumed in vast quantities. In 1997, according to various reports, doctors in California treated a man who came to an emergency room with headaches and fatigue that progressed to the point where he lost the ability to walk. Blood tests showed he had huge amounts of the element bromine in his system. Why? He had been drinking two to four liters of orange soda containing BVO every day. He needed dialysis but eventually recovered.

In 2003, doctors in Ohio treated a man with swollen hands and 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.

Bleah. BVO aside, that's four  two gallons of Ruby Red Squirt per day.

BVO is an emulsifier, used to keep oily components of citrus-flavored beverages from separating. But bromine is also used in fire retardant and it can build up in fatty tissue and interfere with the functioning of the endocrine system. The Food and Drug Administration originally put BVO under its "generally recognized as safe" classification, but later withdrew that approval. It's also banned in some other countries, including the members of the European Union, where Gatorade is sold without it.

Enter Mississippi teen Sarah Kavanagh, who in 2012 noticed the ingredient on her Gatorade sports drink and began campaigning for the company to drop it. Her petition on Change.org eventually gathered 200,000 signatures, and in January 2013, Pepsi dropped BVO from Gatorade, though it remains in products such as Mountain Dew and Amp. She then began attempting to get Coke to do the same with Powerade.

On Monday, Coke spokesman Josh Gold released a statement that said, in part, that "in the coming months, the Coca-Cola company will be transitioning from the use of brominated vegetable oil (BVO) to sucrose acetate isobutyrate (SAIB) and/or glycerol ester of rosin (singly or in-combination).  Glycerol ester of rosin is commonly found in chewing gum and beverages, and SAIB has been used in beverages for over 14 years."

Some Powerade fruit punch and strawberry lemonade varieties already have made the switch to glycerol ester of rosin, Gold said, and all beverages in the U.S. will complete the transition by the end of the year.

Lenny Bernstein writes the To Your Health blog. He started as an editor on the Post’s National Desk in 2000 and has worked in Metro and Sports.
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Lenny Bernstein · May 5