Health Effects of Brominated Vegetable Oil or BVO in Soft Drinks

Citrus-flavored soft drinks may contain brominated vegetable oil.
Citrus-flavored soft drinks may contain brominated vegetable oil. | Source

Why Is BVO Used in Soft Drinks?

When bromine is added to vegetable oil, brominated vegetable oil or BVO is produced. The process gives the oil a similar density to water. A small amount of BVO is mixed with some citrus-flavored soft drinks - both fizzy and non-fizzy - so that the oil-soluble flavors don’t separate from the liquid.

The safety of BVO inside our bodies is a controversial topic because bromine is a toxic chemical. The oil has been banned in most European countries and in Japan, but it’s still used in both the United States and in Canada.

In North America the amount of BVO in soft drinks is limited to 15 parts per million, which health agencies (the FDA and Health Canada) say is safe. However, this limit was established by the FDA in 1977. Since then the daily consumption of soft drinks has increased dramatically. Some scientists feel that the allowable level of brominated vegetable oil in drinks should be re-evaluated.

The soft drink industry says that only ten percent of the soft drinks sold in North America contain BVO, but some popular brands are included in this ten percent. The call for the reassessment of BVO's safety is based on some troubling observations. There are been several reported incidences of health problems - some serious - appearing after a person has drunk a large amount of a soft drink containing brominated vegetable oil every day for a long period of time.

Check the ingredients of your soft drink to see if it contains brominated vegetable oil.
Check the ingredients of your soft drink to see if it contains brominated vegetable oil. | Source

Is Brominated Vegetable Oil Harmful?

There is evidence that BVO may be harmful at higher doses. While many people ingesting soft drinks may not reach a sufficient dosage to cause harm, some do. One condition that excess BVO may cause is bromism. Some examples are described below.

In 1997 in California, a report by a researcher at the Davis Medical Center (part of the University of California) described a male who consumed two to four liters of a cola containing BVO every day for at least 30 days. He developed symptoms of bromism (injurious effects on the nervous system due to bromine buildup). The symptoms were progressive, starting with a headache, memory loss and ataxia (loss of muscle coordination) and ending with an inability to walk.

The patient required hemodialysis in order to recover. In hemodialysis the patient’s blood is sent through a device which acts as an artificial kidney, removing specific chemicals from the blood.

In 2012 a study at the University of Hohenheim in Stuttgart, Germany, found that after they had consumed “several” drinks containing brominated vegetable oil every day (for an unspecified length of time) people experienced a headache, fatigue, memory loss and loss of muscle coordination.

Some other research showed that brominated soybean oil caused serious reproductive problems in rats, with the higher doses causing more problems than the lower doses. The experiment shows how careful researchers have to be with their studies, however. It's possible that the higher dose of soybean oil rather than the higher dose of bromine caused the problems. This isn't likely, though, since soybean oil is widely used and hasn't been found to cause the severe problems in rats which developed in this experiment.

Bromoderma is a rash due to bromide or bromine poisoning.
Bromoderma is a rash due to bromide or bromine poisoning. | Source

Bromoderma

In 2003 a report in the New England Journal of Medicine described a case of bromoderma that developed in someone who had been drinking eight liters of a soft drink containing BVO every day for several months. Bromoderma is a skin condition in which red pustules appear on the skin after exposure to bromine or bromide. Bromide and bromine are related chemicals. Bromide ions are produced from bromine atoms.

Dangerous Flame Retardants

Brominated Flame Retardants and Brominated Vegetable Oil

Brominated Flame Retardants, or BFRs, are organic compounds containing bromine that are added to products such as textiles, furniture, plastics and electronic equipment to reduce the chance of a fire spreading. BFRs slowly escape from products after being added to them. The chemicals are persistent (don't break down easily when released into the environment) and bioaccumulative (collect in the tissues of living things).

Based on animal studies, it's thought that BFRs may be able to cause nerve damage, thyroid problems and endocrine disruption in humans. The endocrine system consists of hormones and their actions. There are different types of BFRs. Different types may have different health effects. Some researchers say that people need to be exposed to large amounts of BFRs before symptoms appear, while others say that even small doses are dangerous.

One way in which brominated flame retardants stop fire is by the action of the bromine that they contain. The bromine is released into the burning material in an activated form. The activated bromine stops or slows the chemical reactions taking place, thereby reducing or preventing burning.

A brominated vegetable oil molecule has a different structure from a brominated flame retardant molecule, but like the flame retardant it contains bromine. Researchers think that some of the effects of the brominated oil molecule and the brominated flame retardant molecule in our bodies may be the same, because they both transport toxic bromine into the body.

Bromine is a red-brown liquid at room temperature.
Bromine is a red-brown liquid at room temperature. | Source

Bromine Toxicity

Bromine in its molecular form is very toxic. As a liquid it's corrosive and can burn skin. The inhaled gas irritates the air passages, makes breathing difficult, and may cause a headache, dizziness and runny eyes.

Bromine in the body exists in its ionic form, called bromide. This too is toxic, although it's not as dangerous as the bromine molecule. Bromide is a cumulative poison. Dangerous symptoms may not appear immediately but develop as the chemical builds up in the body. Bromide is eliminated in the urine, but stays in the body for a long time - nine to twelve days - before this elimination happens.

Up until 1975 medicines containing bromides were used as sedatives and anticonvulsants. Some were widely advertised and were available over-the-counter. Two early and popular products were Dr. Miles Nervine, which was used to soothe tension, and the original Bromo-Seltzer, which contained sodium bromide and was used to relieve headaches. (The modern Bromo-Seltzer doesn't contain bromide.)

Bromide sedatives were withdrawn because of their toxicity and their ability to cause chronic bromism. People with bromism may experience emotional instability, hallucinations and slurred speech in addition to memory loss and movement problems. Unfortunately, in the past some people who developed bromism after taking bromide sedatives were admitted to psychiatric hospitals because their doctors didn't realize that they were being poisoned by their medication.

Some people drink multiple cans of soft drinks each day.
Some people drink multiple cans of soft drinks each day. | Source

The Future For BVO

Soft drink makers in North America point out that health agencies say that brominated vegetable oil in drinks is safe. Concerned researchers say that BVO hasn't been tested adequately at today's intake levels and that the guidelines for its use were determined many years ago when our drinking habits were different. The 15 parts per million limit established in 1977 was supposed to be an interim value until more testing was done, but many years later the same limit is in place and no official FDA testing has been done. The FDA says that research to check the BVO limit would require resources which are not presently available and that updating the limit is not a public health priority.

Proponents of brominated vegetable oil say that many substances in food and beverages would be dangerous if eaten or drunk in large quantities - even water - but are safe in small or moderate quantities. While this may well be true, we need some accurate answers to the following questions. What level of BVO is safe for the majority of people? Is the safety margin being exceeded in today's society?

In general, health experts seem to think that an occasional soft drink containing BVO is unlikely to cause any problems, but a high consumption of beverages containing BVO - at the level drunk by some people today - might. More research into the safety of brominated vegetable oil is definitely needed.

© 2013 Linda Crampton

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Comments 24 comments

Rosie writes profile image

Rosie writes 3 years ago from Virginia

Very well written and informative hub. I gave up softdrinks a few years ago, but family members still drink it. I will be checking for BVO as I knew nothing about it. Thanks for the information.


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 3 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Thank you very much for the comment, Rosie writes. I don't drink soft drinks very often, but it's good to know about their ingredients!


Fossillady profile image

Fossillady 3 years ago from Saugatuck Michigan

I gave up soft drinks years ago, thank goodness, and so did one of my sons. I'll have to get after my other son about this! Thank you for sharing.


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 3 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Thanks for the comment, Kathi. I appreciate your visit!


aviannovice profile image

aviannovice 3 years ago from Stillwater, OK

And this was passed by the FDA...what a frightening thought.


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 3 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Hi, Deb. It would be nice if new testing was done to see if the 1977 allowable amount of brominated vegetable oil in soft drinks is still suitable today. A lot of changes can happen in 35 years!


drbj profile image

drbj 3 years ago from south Florida

Thank you, Alicia, for elaborating on the side effects of BVO - especially in the popular soft drinks easily available today. It is a dangerous substance and I first alluded to it in my "Interview with FDA Spokesperson Part One."

Just imagine drinking a substance that is also used as a flame retardant. Boggles the mind, doesn't it?


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 3 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Hi, drbj. Thank you for the visit and the comment. I wish researchers would study BVO more - we need to know more about its presence in soft drinks! 1977 research is almost certainly inapplicable to today's society.


Nell Rose profile image

Nell Rose 3 years ago from England

Hi Alicia, scary stuff, I remember reading a couple of years ago about someone going into hospital because they drank too much cola on a daily basis, now I know why. to be honest drinking that amount a day would cause trouble in other ways too. I do think we trust the makers of drink or even the furniture why buy too easily, its not something we think about, we just trust them to know best, thanks for the info and voted up and shared, nell


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 3 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Hi, Nell. Yes, you're right, drinking several liters of a soft drink each day would cause other health problems besides those caused by brominated vegetable oil! Thank you very much for the comment, the vote and the share.


Crystal Tatum profile image

Crystal Tatum 3 years ago from Georgia

It's very scary, what we're consuming without knowing it. A very interesting and enlightening article. Voted up and sharing.


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 3 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Hi, Crystal. It is scary, especially when we eat processed foods that contain artificial additives (although some natural foods contain potentially dangerous chemicals too). I appreciate your comment, as well as the vote and the share.


Laura in Denver profile image

Laura in Denver 3 years ago from Aurora

Very informative health information. Thanks!


MartieCoetser profile image

MartieCoetser 3 years ago from South Africa

Alicia, I was totally unaware of Bromine and brominated vegetable oil and its health effects. If I heard of this before, I would have ignored all info, because I prefer not to know detail of this nature. (I will go nuts!) But after reading this hub of yours, I feel like checking the ingredients of our soft drinks - I drink up to 1 liter Coke Light per day, and it does give me headaches! Oh boy, I wonder what will be left to eat and drink when we chuck all unhealthy stuff?

Excellent, informative hub, as always!


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 3 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Thanks for the visit and the comment, Laura in Denver!


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 3 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Hi, Martie. The additives in processed foods are certainly worrying. BVO is generally added to fruit-flavored soft drinks rather than to colas, but some colas have controversial chemicals in them too! Thank you very much for the comment.


onegreenparachute profile image

onegreenparachute 3 years ago from Greenwood, B.C., Canada

Excellent information Alicia. I had no idea about BVOs and I'm always glad to get new info. When I saw the Bromo-Seltzer advert. I got an immediate picture of my dear 'ol dad swigging his morning dose! Yikes!


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 3 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Thank you for the comment, onegreenparachute. It is frightening to think about the medicines that our relatives took in the past without realizing the harm that they could cause!


Denise Handlon profile image

Denise Handlon 3 years ago from North Carolina

I feel so uninformed-I'll be checking for BVO now in the list of ingredients. Thanks for sharing this very informative hub...bet it'll make the HOTD list soon!

BTW-I remember the bromo selzer commercials...not exactly the same kind, but the product.


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 3 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Thank you very much for the visit and the kind comment, Denise. I've heard of Bromo-Seltzer before, but I don't remember any advertisements about it. I did read about the Bromo-Seltzer train recently, though, and now I keep on hearing it in my mind!


teaches12345 profile image

teaches12345 3 years ago

I don't drink soft drinks as a norm, only one special occasions (and that is rare). The facts on brominate in soft drinks is scary, to say the least. The flame retardant issue is very concerning for me. I do agree that more research is needed! Voted up.


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 3 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Hi, Dianna. I only drink soft drinks occasionally too, and I try to avoid eating processed foods whenever possible as well. I don't like consuming artificial additives. Thanks for the comment and the vote!


anonymus 22 months ago

After reading this, I may never drink soda again! This scared me and I will have to let my family know. Thank you so much Alicia!


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 22 months ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Thanks for the comment, anonymus. I hope you're able to find a soft drink that you like which doesn't contain BVO!

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