Soda pop isn't health food. On that, I think we can all agree. But in some popular brands the issue goes beyond the many multiple teaspoons of sugar the typical serving contains to a little-known ingredient that's infinitely more surprising and perhaps more unhealthy still.
That ingredient is a flame retardant call brominated vegetable oil (BVO). You read that right. Some 10% of sodas in the U.S. contain a flame retardant, and it's not because drink companies sought to create a multipurpose product that can extinguish both raging thirsts and raging fires, but because BVO also makes a great fruit-flavored drink emulsifier, an ingredient that helps flavoring agents stay suspended in the formula.
BVO, which is made by combining soy or corn oil with bromine, is limited by the FDA to 15 parts per million in soft drinks and sport beverages. That's not much. The problem is that a lot of people these days are chugging large amounts of soda on a regular basis, and if you drink enough BVO, unhealthy effects are going to start showing up.
For their part, drink makers say the ingredient is safe, and they're probably right, at least as far as occasional soda drinkers are concerned. But for habitual pop drinkers things are not so clear cut, and that's led to calls for BVO to be banned in soft drinks as it is in Europe and Japan where far less controversial natural emulsifiers are used.
BVO opponents point out that the current limits were set in the 1970s and are based on fairly ancient studies that should be updated using new, more advanced techniques that could uncover harmful effects the earlier research missed. They also point to evidence that bromine accumulates in people over time and has been found to trigger problems in animals. There are also worries that BVO could behave like the brominated flame retardants that some studies have linked to unpleasant health effects in people.
The bottom line is there are a few too many question marks surrounding BVO's use in soft drinks and sports beverages, and some signs that it may not be such a great idea. Fortunately, if a drink contains BVO, it has to say so in its ingredients list. A quick glance will tell us which brands have it and which brands don't.
I've got nothing against sodas. In fact, I find few things more refreshing than a glass of iced cola on a hot afternoon. And I don't deny my daughter the occasional root beer, which she loves. But these are special treats we enjoy once in a very great while, not hour after hour every day of the year. So I'm not worried about BVO in my own case, and probably won't even bother checking for it. But it's a different situation for others. Lots of people drink buckets of soda on a regular basis. Video gamers, for example, have a culture in which fruit-flavored sodas play a significant role, and if I were a part of it or engaged in any kind of soda “binge drinking,” I'd be thinking long and hard about BVO (not to mention diabetes, but that's another blog post).
The BVO dilemma is emblematic of a larger truth: far too many processed foods and drinks that should be once-in-a-blue-moon pleasures (and would be pretty harmless if they were) have become everyday staples. The typical American diet is no longer punctuated by the occasional vice, it's becoming composed of them. BVO or not, we need to get back to basics, fill the grocery cart with whole foods instead of synthetic simulacrum, and start eating like it matters. Because whenever we don't, we can see that it does.