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Should brominated vegetable oil be banned?

Brominated vegetable oil can be found in many popular drinks including Gatorage. (Getty)Ever heard of brominated vegetable oil? Whether you have or not, if you’ve consumed Mountain Dew, Powerade, Gatorade, Fresca, or Amp Energy Drink, then you’ve ingested the controversial food additive.

Brominated vegetable oil, also known as BVO, can be added to beverages to cloud them and stop separation. Health Canada and the American Food and Drug Administration have approved it as a safe food additive under certain guidelines, but in Europe and Japan, BVO is completely banned, reports the Toronto Star.

“I don't think it is much of an issue,” says chemist and director of the McGill Office for Science and Society, Joe Schwarcz. “There are better reasons to avoid the products that contain BVO than the fact that they contain that particular chemical.”

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He says that while an excessive intake of bromine in virtually any form can be toxic, the emphasis is on “excessive.”

Schwarcz points to the case of a 63-year-old man who presented with terrible red ulcerated nodules on his hands. The man confessed to drinking 8 liters of Ruby Red Squirt daily for several months. When he eliminated the beverage from his diet it reversed what physicians referred to as “bromoderma.”

The problem, in other words, was the eight-litre-a-day pop habit, not the BVO.

“The bottom line here is that if the worry about BVO makes people avoid the beverages that contain it, so much the better. These drinks are generally high in sugar and have a poor nutritional profile, irrespective of BVO.”

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There is some evidence that bromine -- a chemical originally patented as a flame retardant -- may have negative health effects when administered in large doses. However, those studies were conducted in rats. Rats who were fed a diet containing 0.5 per cent brominated oils developed heart lesions, and those fed one per cent had problems conceiving, reports Environmental Health News.

Soda companies argue that the 15 parts per million limit set on BVO as an additive means humans are ingesting exponentially lower levels than those that cause damage in rats.

But several isolated cases like the example given by Schwarcz indicate otherwise. In these rare and extreme cases, humans who regularly consumed litres of BVO-containing soda a day suffered severe symptoms including skin ulcers, fatigue, ataxia and memory loss.

Health Canada is currently not reviewing its policies on the use of BVO as an additive and states there are no health risks associated with BVO when it is used according to regulations.

However, in the United States, pressure is mounting to ban the compound, due to the efforts of an American teenager named Sarah Kavanagh. The Mississippi youth started a petition on Change.org to have the ingredient banned from Gatorade after learning it was banned in other countries, but not the United States.

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"It's a question of amount in terms of risk," says Ariel Fenster, also a chemist from McGill's Office for Science and Society. He points to the fact that the rats studied where fed huge amounts of the compound.

His beef with BVO?

"If there are alternatives, why not use them? If there is any doubt and there are alternatives, why not look into it?" says Fenster.

In Europe, drink makers use something called hydrocolloids to perform the role of BVO.

As Kavanagh's petition gathers steam and signatures, it's likely to be a question that more Canadians are asking.  

Watch the video below about Coca-Cola's recent anti-obesity ads.    

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