There’s Flame Retardant in My Gatorade?!

The beverage giant announces it’s nixing brominated vegetable oil from its sports drinks.
Gatorade is among the commercially-sold drinks that contain brominated vegetable oil. (Photo: David Young-Wolff)
Jan 26, 2013· 2 MIN READ
A Bay Area native, Andri Antoniades has previously worked as a fashion industry journalist and a medical writer.

Still reeling from the news that Vitamin Water does not in fact serve any medicinal purpose, nationwide consumers were recently shocked to discover that Gatorade, a sports drink presumed to promote physical health, contains a chemical that's also used as a flame retardant—and no, we're not talking about water.

Amid consumer complaints, including a petition started by a Mississippi teenager, Gatorade’s parent company, PepsiCo Inc., announced yesterday that it will remove brominated vegetable oil from its Gatorade products.

According to Scientific American, the compound, also known as BVO, is patented as a flame retardant by chemical companies, and its use in food is banned in both the European Union and Japan—for compelling reasons. Studies show that it can build up in the human body. And it's been linked to some serious health issues, including impaired neurological development and altered thyroid hormones. However, in the U.S., the chemical is still approved for use in commercially packaged drinks; it acts as an emulsifier that keeps artificial flavoring evenly distributed. Critics say that the only reason BVO has retained its FDA approval is because the agency hasn't adequately tested its effects on human health.

When curious 15-year-old Sarah Kavanagh investigated the list of ingredients in her favorite Gatorade flavor, she discovered that it contained BVO and decided to call out PepsiCo with an online petition asking for its removal. At last count, over 200,000 people signed it.

Despite Kavanagh’s success, a PepsiCo spokesperson reported to the Associated Press that the petition had nothing to do with the removal of BVO from its Gatorade line, and that it's been investigating an alternate emulsifier for the better part of the last year.

However the change came about, it’s important to note that Gatorade isn’t the only flavored beverage that contains BVO; PepsiCo's Mountain Dew, Coca-Cola’s Fanta and the Snapple Group’s Sun Drop and Squirt drinks also list it as an ingredient. So far, there have been no reports about whether these beverages will also remove the chemical from their formulas.

For the manufacturers of soda and flavored drinks, the call to stop using BVO serves as the latest in a list of bad press. As consumers continue to demand healthier alternatives to high fructose corn syrup and other artificial additives, companies are furiously trying to repackage their products as healthy. Vitamin Water serves as one example, but so does Pepsi’s attempt at selling a “fat-blocking” soda in Japan and Coca-Cola’s proposal to manufacture a line of beverages in France that “promote physical beauty.”

Stateside, Coca-Cola even released a commercial aligning itself with the fight to cure America's obesity epidemic, but in it, still managed to eschew responsibility for the decades it's spent serving kids sugary sodas.

Perhaps what soda conglomerates should be taking more seriously is their newly savvy consumers, almost all of whom have access to the barrage of nutritional information available online. Case in point is Sarah Kavanagh and the almost quarter of a million people who signed her petition. Even if Pepsi was in the process of changing Gatorade's formula prior to that petition, the message here is clear: Consumers have power—to identify issues and mobilize and fix them—and they're not going to accept anything less than responsibility from the companies they patronize.

What other ingredients should be removed before a drink manufacturer can claim its product is healthy? Let us know in the Comments.