Jane Says: There’s a Flame-Retardant Chemical in Your Orange Soda

Not sure what brominated vegetable oil is doing in your soda pop? Our food advice columnist has answers.

orange soda with straw
If you've ever felt like your citrus soda tastes greasy, you're not crazy. (Photo: Flickr/Getty Images)
Jane Lear is a regular contributor to TakePart. She was on staff at 'Gourmet' for almost 20 years.

“Why is brominated vegetable oil put in some citrus drinks like orange and Mountain Dew? I drank an orange soda once and it tasted greasy. When I looked at the label, I felt that was the culprit.” —Cora Redd

Funny you should ask. Last week I was on the road and found myself downing an Orange Crush, a Coke, and my favorite summer indulgence, a root beer from Weber’s, all in the course of one (very long, very hot) day’s drive. I wouldn’t have described the Crush as greasy, exactly, but its mouthfeel was heavy compared to that of the Coke (crisp) and the root beer (creamy). Its aftertaste was more of an after-coating, but I have to say, it reminded me of my childhood. I kind of liked it.

A few days later, I picked up an orange soda from the Boylan Bottling Company, just out of curiosity. Although the taste is cleaner (it’s made with cane sugar instead of high-fructose corn syrup) and tastes more of tangerine than orange, it still has that slightly weighty mouthfeel. There’s no brominated vegetable oil in Boylan, but there are mandarin and tangerine oils. Hmm.

According to Larry Hobbs, executive director at the International Society of Beverage Technologists, each specific type of soda—orange, cola, and so forth—has a different set of perceived characteristics. “They have to be what people expect,” he said. “I’m not a flavor chemist,” he added, “but it strikes me that one potential source of the mouthfeel you are talking about in orange soda is due to citrus oils or natural flavorings.”

MORE: Caramel Carcinogen? Your Soda Pop Could Kill You

When it comes to additives, the ingredients in sodas may change depending on regulatory requirements or availability of ingredients, he explained, but the product still needs to adhere to that established flavor. “Flavor compounds can be natural, they can be synthetic, and you’ll often see a combination,” he said. “Consumers have a flavor expectation, and there are different ways of getting there.”

So what’s the deal with brominated vegetable oil? That was fun to research. Called BVO for short, it is vegetable oil derived from soybean or corn that is bonded with the element bromine. Like ester gum—a derivative of glycerol ester of wood rosin that’s present in both Orange Crush and Boylan—it helps stabilize citrus and other flavoring oils so they stay evenly dispersed throughout a beverage. Otherwise, the citrus oils or natural flavorings would float to the surface of the soda, even after shaking or stirring.

BVO, a patented flame-retardant chemical, is banned from food in Japan and Europe (hydrocolloids are the EU alternative), but it’s been an ingredient in U.S. soft drinks for decades. The chemical isn’t in Coke, Pepsi, or root beer (phew!), but today, sodas containing BVO account for a market share of about 15 percent. Just take a look at the citrus, sports, and energy drink categories at labelwatch.com.

That last category is where you’ll find Mountain Dew, which is now styled Mtn Dew, presumably to grab consumers who are in too much of a hurry for words of more than one syllable. As Brett Israel reported in Environmental Health News (12/12/11), Mountain Dew and other drinks loaded with caffeine and sugar stoke gamers who think nothing of playing for 12 hours straight.

“The $110-billion-a-year soft drink industry and the $74-billion-a-year video game industry have noticed,” wrote Israel. “Activision, the makers of ‘Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3,’ the latest edition in this popular video game series, paired with Mountain Dew in a promotion that rewards gamers with bonus points for drinking more Mountain Dew.” The promo ended in December with a shout-out to the 1.8 million fans who redeemed over 18 million codes.

Back in 1977, the FDA limited the amount of BVO in citrusy sodas to 15 parts per million. In the meantime, according to a National Cancer Institute study, soda has become the largest source of calories for teenagers between the ages of 14 to 18. (Another shout-out, this one from me to parents: Where are you?) And USDA statistics show that among adults, soda is the fourth largest source of calories. You would never know, in fact, that potable water is within the reach of everyone in this country who can turn on a faucet.

I suppose it’s no wonder a number of experts think it’s time to reevaluate BVO. These days, they can utilize new and improved toxicity testing for developmental, hormonal, and reproductive changes that weren’t on the radar in the 1960s, ’70s, and early ’80s.

You know what else wasn’t on the radar back then? A consumer mentality that has turned what kids of my generation regarded as an occasional treat into a routine mealtime beverage as well as “gamer fuel” that equates mindless bingeing with extreme sports.

Israel points out that in 1997, “emergency room doctors at University of California, Davis, reported a patient with severe bromine intoxication from drinking two to four liters of orange soda every day. He developed headaches, fatigue, ataxia (loss of muscle coordination) and memory loss.” In a 2003 case study, a 63-year-old man in Ohio developed ulcers on his swollen hands after drinking eight liters of Ruby Red Squirt every day for several months. “The man was diagnosed with bromoderma, a rare skin hypersensitivity to bromine exposure. The patient quit drinking the brominated soft drink and months later recovered.”

Not only are my back teeth floating (eight liters!), but I do not feel one iota of sympathy for either person. What in the Sam Hill were they thinking? Pretty much everything—including water—can be poisonous if overconsumed.

What I find easier to understand is the position of the FDA. I can’t quite believe I’m saying this—maybe the people who work there would have more time and money if they weren’t so busy surveilling their own. But I can see that the overconsumption of BVO—easily avoidable in soft drinks if you choose to do so—isn’t in the same league as being blindsided by a pathogen like E. coli or salmonella or perhaps contaminated food imports. In my world, there’s room for a once-in-awhile soda on the road.

Soda drinkers: Are you surprised that BVO is in your soda can?

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