FDA Moves to Ban BVO Amid Neurological And Other Health Concerns

by Staff Writer
November 6, 2023 at 12:35 PM UTC

The FDA proposes banning brominated vegetable oil due to new studies revealing its potential neurological risks and harmful environmental impact.

Clinical Relevance: BVO in citrus beverages may harm neurological health

  • The FDA aims to ban brominated vegetable oil (BVO) in response to evidence of its neurological risks and thyroid disruption.
  • BVO, once common in beverages, is now rarely used, with many brands opting for safer alternatives.
  • Despite its removal from most products, BVO persists in some regional and smaller brand beverages.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has recently proposed a significant change to food safety regulations, targeting brominated vegetable oil (BVO), a food additive mainly used to stabilize citrus flavors in beverages. The move to revoke BVO’s authorization comes after new scientific studies have raised serious concerns about its safety, particularly its potential to cause harm to the thyroid and accumulate in the body.

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Potential Harms

BVO is a synthetic chemical that bonds vegetable oil to bromine, the element found in many flame retardants. Its primary function in the food industry has been to prevent the separation of oil from water in citrus-flavored beverages, ensuring a consistent taste and appearance. This once-common ingredient is now rarely used. Many beverage manufacturers have already shifted to safer alternatives.But it lingers as an ingredient among products still on supermarket shelves.

The FDA’s decision is based on recent toxicological research conducted in collaboration with the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Of particular concern is BVO’s potential to harm neurological health

When the additive is consumed, it can deposit in the brain and other areas rich in fat, leading to a gradual build-up of bromine. Over time, this bioaccumulation can disrupt neurological functions, as the brain is especially sensitive to chemical imbalances. 

High levels of bromine have been associated with neurological symptoms such as memory loss, tremors, fatigue, and headaches—a constellation of effects known as bromism. Scientists worry that long-term exposure to BVO could exacerbate these symptoms, potentially leading to more serious and persistent neurological conditions. 

This risk, coupled with the potential for thyroid damage, significantly influenced the FDA’s decision to propose a ban on BVO. According to the consumer advocacy group, Consumer Reports, peer-reviewed studies conducted on rodents have also linked BVO to heart and liver problems, as well as behavioral, developmental, and reproductive issues. Additionally, concerns about BVO’s environmental toll during its production and disposal have further underscored the urgency of regulatory action.

A Long History

In its public announcement, the FDA stated that it has determined that there is no longer a “reasonable certainty of no harm” from the continued use of BVO in food. This is the standard for food additives under the law.

The FDA once categorized BVO as “Generally Recognized as Safe” (GRAS). However, it has been stirring up controversy since the 1930s. The chemical compound has faced varying regulatory responses worldwide, with over 100 countries, including those in the European Union and Japan, already removing it from food products.

Despite its widespread prohibition and the FDA’s temporary ban in 1970, the US has allowed BVO’s use under interim status, pending additional research—a period that extended for decades. Should the ban go into effect, the rest of the nation would join California, the one state which already passed a prohibition on BVO, Red Dye 3, potassium bromate, and propylparaben, that goes into effect in 2027

Remaining Use

For consumers looking to avoid BVO now, the FDA advised carefully checking the ingredients of beverage products. Most major brands have long since removed BVO. However, some smaller grocery store brands and regional beverages still contain it.

For example, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) lists products like Giant’s Diet Orange Soda and Food Lion’s Diet Mountain Lion Citrus Flavored Soda as containing high amounts of BVO. And the EWG maintains that at least one major brand, Mountain Dew, markets several drinks that continue to use the additive. The EWG offers a full list of products here

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