Nobody pretends that sodas are a health food. But until recently, there was little talk about how seriously bad it can be to chug the 57 gallons (217 litres) of soft drinks that the average American consumes each year.
What sparked this discussion was New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's controversial ban on the sale of super-sized (larger than 16oz, or half-litre) sodas in movie theaters and fast food restaurants. The ban was approved by the city's board of health in September and will take effect in March 2013. It has generally been applauded by public health activists who blame the sugary drinks for a nationwide spike in obesity and diabetes, especially among teens for whom it is the number one source of calories, according to a study by the National Cancer Institute (pdf).
Many school districts around the country have taken soda cans out of their vending machines, and legislation seeking to restrict federal food stamps from being used to purchase soda and other "junk foods" was introduced during the past year in California, Oregon, Illinois, Vermont, Florida and Texas. None of these bills has yet passed.
While the high sugar content of America's favorite beverage has gotten most of the bad press, there are other additives that may be putting consumers at risk. For example, phosphorous (a leading cause of osteoporosis), phosphoric acid (which corrodes teeth and damages kidneys) and sodium (which is implicated in high blood pressure) all show up in super-sized doses in America's soft drinks. Recently, Coke and Pepsi decided to reduce the amount of synthetic caramel color 4-methylimidazole (4-MEI) in some of their sodas - rather than label these drinks with cancer warnings in accord with California health guidelines.
And there is more ... Sarah Kavanagh was rummaging through the ingredient list for Gatorade - she's a vegan so she was on the lookout for animal products - when the 15 yearold from Mississippi found something that she had never heard of before: brominated vegetable oil (BVO). Curious, she did a Google search and found an article on the Environmental Health News website that reported that BVO is a patented flame retardant used in plastics, with some scary potential health effects, like altered thyroid function, reduced fertility and neurological damage.
Sarah was amazed. "I was like, "Dude, what is this? ... I was like, "Whoa! That is not good." She threw the Gatorade in the trash bin and started a petition campaign on the internet site Change.org to get soda manufacturers like PepsiCo, the maker of Gatorade, to eliminate BVO from their products. The petition has recently topped 200,000 signatures.
BVO is found in 10% of all US sodas, as well as sports drinks. BVO is an emulsifier used to spread the fruit and coloring elements evenly, giving products like Fanta Orange, and Mountain Dew a cloudy, more natural appearance. The vegetable oil part might make it seem harmless, but the bromination turns the oil into a potentially toxic chemical that is banned in foods in the European Union and Japan.
Soda manufactures argue that there is currently no hard evidence that BVO is harmful when ingested in low concentrations (the FDA allows 15 parts per million.) Others are not so sure. As early as the 1970, the Flavor and Extract Manufacturers Association revoked their decision that the additive was "generally recognized as safe", after reviewing the mixed scientific data.
The FDA appears to have had some doubts of its own when it issued an "interim" ruling in 1977 to allow the substance, pending further studies to establish its safety. Those in-depth studies were never conducted. The regulators plead poverty, as spokeswoman Patricia El-Hinnawy told the New York Times earlier this month:
"Any change in the interim status of BVO would require an expenditure of FDA's limited resources, which is not a public health protection priority for the agency at this time."What is known is that in high doses BVO is neurotoxic and can lead reproductive and behavioral problems, at least in rats. Since no long-term human trials have been conducted, we don't know the effects of ingesting BVO in soda, especially in high amounts.
Of particular concern are video-gamers who drink vast quantities of sodas with high caffeine content to stay alert during their marathon sessions, which can last all night long. So intertwined are the gaming culture and caffeinated soda consumption that the leading video game maker Activision partnered with Mountain Dew to reward gamers with bonus points for each additional can that they chug.
Environmental Health News reports that after binging on sodas that contain BVO, teens have occasionally landed in the emergency room for skin lesions, memory loss and nerve disorders - all symptoms of overexposure to bromine.
"BVO accumulates in the heart, liver and fat tissue," according to Dr John Spangler, a professor of family and community medicine at Wake Forest Baptist Medical. "New studies are warranted to update the old studies, especially given that the patterns of soft drink consumption have changed so dramatically over the past three decades."
Michael F Jacobson, the executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest put it more bluntly, "The testing of BVO is abysmal." He has urged the FDA to finally conduct the trials for which it called when it gave the provisional green light for the additive back in the 1970s.
But there is an easier solution. Soda makers could voluntarily take BVO out of their product. The companies claim that there are no alternatives. But that's clearly not true since a natural product, hydrocolloids, have been used for decades in many sodas in Europe to suspend the fruit ingredients. Hydrocolloids, however, are a bit more expensive than BVO, so the real motive for the manufacturers appears to be cost.
"'Thank you for your concern ... blah blah blah,'" is how Sarah Kavanagh described the soft drink giant's disappointing response. But as she wrote in her open letter to PepsiCo:
We know you can do better than this!