Bromine: Mountain Dew’s Dirty Little Secret

This is a guest blog post by Andy Bellatti, MS.

Here’s a product I recently tweeted about – the latest Dunkin’ Donuts beverage — the Mountain Dew Coolatta.

A small (16 oz.) one contains almost 13 teaspoons of added sugar, while a large (32 oz.) contributes no less than 25 teaspoons of sugar.

The 25-ingredient list also caught my eye.  Check it out:

Frozen Neutral Base [Water, Neutral Base (Sugar, Glucose, Fructose, Silicon Dioxide, Malic Acid, Xanthan Gum)], Mountain Dew Coolatta Concentrate [Treated Water, High Fructose Corn Syrup, Citric Acid, Orange Juice Concentrate, Sodium Hexametaphosphate (to protect flavor), Xanthan Gum, Ethyl Alcohol, Natural and Artificial Flavor, Caffeine, Sodium Benzoate (preserves freshness), Gum Arabic, Sodium Citrate, Glycerol Ester of Rosin, Calcium Disodium EDTA (to protect flavor), Erythorbic Acid (preserves freshness), Yellow 5, Brominated Vegetable Oil].

You know it’s a bad sign when you make a can of Mountain Dew seem like “the sensible choice”.  We’ve got the usual suspects here — a myriad of sugar synonyms, artificial flavors, all sorts of multi-syllabic additives, petroleum-based dyes, and the belle of the processed-food ball: high fructose corn syrup.

While those red flag ingredients are familiar to many, it is that last ingredient — brominated vegetable oil — that most people aren’t aware of.  And, in this case, what you don’t know may indeed hurt you.

Brominated vegetable oil is a key ingredient in artificially citrus-flavored drinks like Mountain Dew, Fresca, and some varieties of Gatorade.  It serves two main functions — it is a stabilizer and also responsible for that slightly cloudy look these beverages have.

In essence, take a vegetable oil, add some bromine atoms and — voilà, you now have brominated vegetable oil.  For the record, liquid bromine — also found in photo paper, car seats, mattresses, and carpeting — is corrosive and extremely hazardous to our skin and lungs.

So what’s the problem?  Well, bromine is fat-soluble and builds up in our tissuesA 16-ounce soft drink made with brominated vegetable oil contains approximately 2 milligrams of bromine.  Oddly, the only peer-reviewed, published studies I have come across on this topic are ones ranging from the late 1960s to the mid 1980s, all of which were done on rats.  That said, the results are far from encouraging.  Upon consuming feed that contained brominated oils, the rats developed a variety of ills — ranging from decreased levels of HDL (“good”) cholesterol to myocardial degeneration.

Before anyone shrugs this off with “well, rat studies don’t always apply to humans” or “the rats probably received ridiculous, toxic doses”, it is worth pointing out that brominated vegetable oils are banned in the European Union.  Alas, the good ol’ FDA ensures us it’s just fine in acceptable doses.  You know, in the same way that the European Union eliminated artificial colors from their food supply over behavioral concerns in children while the United States continues to pump them out at higher amounts than ever before?

Per FDA law, brominated vegetable oils can be used “as a stabilizer for flavoring oils used in fruit-flavored beverages”, and must only be used in amounts that do not exceed 15 part per million in the final product.

Here’s the odd part.  As of February of 1984, the FDA stated that the use of brominated vegetable oils is “pending the outcome of additional toxicological studies on which periodic reports at 6-month intervals are to be furnished and final results submitted to the Food and Drug Administration promptly after completion of the studies.”

Where are the studies showing its complete safety?  And, why, especially following the bans of brominated vegetable oils in other countries, does the United States not only keep including it in beverages but also not decide this topic might be worth revisiting?

Some members of the scientific community dismiss concerns by stating that a human would have to drink endless amounts of Mountain Dew to have the health-damaging effects seen in the rat studies from decades ago.  Sound like a familiar argument?  It’s the same one that comes up when aspartame’s health effects are questioned.  However, an absence of myocardial degeneration or fatty liver does not mean a product is safe, in the same way that exposure to certain levels of radiation may not cause death in a matter of days, but can nevertheless increase cancer risk over the course of a decade.

In the meantime, brominated vegetable oils are yet another nail in the coffin for clear sodas and other artificially-flavored citrus beverages.

Andy Bellatti, MS, is a Seattle-based nutritionist, writer, and speaker, and is the creator of the Small Bites blog. He expects to take his Registered Dietitian exam this Summer. You can follow him on Twitter @andybellatti.

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  • Weight Loss and Food Blogger

    Thanks for the clear explanation.

  • Lauren Smith

    Hurray! I love Andy Bellatti. Good explanation. I’m so sick of explaining to my friends why I avoid things like hydrogenated oils and artificial colors, and hearing “it’s fine in small amounts!” Ugh.

    • Fistuk

      LOL – Even if it were fine in small amounts, what percentage of people who drink soda, drink it in small amounts. Tell those friends of yours “OK, have a shotglass worth no more than once a week”. See what they say then ;)

  • GreenLifestyles

    Very informative article Andy. Bromine toxidity is harmful for the body as it also causes iodine deficiancy and thyroid disorders. Be safe and minimize your consumption.
    -Michael Solieman, Green Lifestyles 

    • Jim Cooper

      Bromine and brominated hydrocarbons are not the same thing.

  • Jim Cooper

    You can easily find more recent studies if you check PubMed. Your fears are not entirely unfounded (although the concentrations fed the rats are very high), but much of the “science” you give in this article is nonsense. You confuse bromide anions with “liquid bromine,” and bromination of hydrocarbons with mixing of the bromine and hydrocarbon components. 
    There is simply no evidence that aspartame is dangerous, (check PubMed), it is well known that HFCS is biologically equivalent to table sugar, and the EU has not eliminated food colorings from their food supply. If you think so, cite an EU reference. 

    • Lauren Smith

      I suffered physical withdrawal symptoms (intense headaches, nausea) after quitting Splenda, aspartame, and all artificial sweeteners cold turkey. I don’t need any more evidence than that. Artificial sweeteners are toxic garbage.

      • Jim Cooper

        This seems to be anecdotal evidence that SOMETHING caused these physical problems but really doesn’t prove a connection. Further, it is unlikely that all the sweeteners would cause these symptoms. If you feel better off not using them, fine, but without an actual controlled study (double blind) there is no way to make an actual connection between such symptoms and any of the sweeteners.

        • Lauren Smith

          I guess, unlike you, I’m not willing to play lab rat.

        • Fistukm

          If you want evidence – study some basic organic chemistry and biochemistry ;)

          • Jim Cooper

            Actually I have. My PhD is in organic chemistry.

          • Fistuk

            So I guess you forgot the basic stuff ;)

        • Em

          Anecdotal?  They made one change and developed symptoms.  That’s more than anecdotal.

      • Fistuk

        Good job quitting! And good job properly understanding the withdrawal symptoms. Some people seem to think the opposite – like “see, I feel bad without it. That means it must be good for me”. (not necessarily regarding artificial sweeteners, just health in general.)

    • Anonymous

      I checked PubMed but didn’t see any recent studies on brominated oils. Can you point me to them?

      • Jim Cooper

        “Recent” is a relative term but abstract 1342177 is from 1992,and 3632217 from 1986. Somewhat later than those referred to in the article above.

        • Anonymous

          Thanks! So they were supplementing them with 0.5g BVO per 100g (and 0.1g per 100g). You said this concentration is high; And how much BVO per 100mg is in Mountain Dew’s Coolatta. Any way to find that information?

    • TJ

      My father helped develop that stuff, and he banned me from consuming it. If a developer of the chemical formula for this stuff stops his children and grandchildren from drinking/eating it, why would it be okay for the rest of the world?

      • James Cooper

        Because his worries do not translate into evidence. He could very well be right, but there is no research to support it.

  • Kane Deng

    We use vegetable oils every day, and think it is more healthy than animal oils. Because they have healthy fat.

    • J in VA

      I think you’ll find ample research to show that highly processed vegetable fats are unhealthy and that fats such as olive oil, butter and lard have a long track record of human consumption without harm.

      You simply have to ask your self—did humans die from rampant heart disease in the centuries that people ate lard, tallow, butter,etc…the answer is no. Heart disease did not become the problem it is today until people started eatting margarine, soy and corn oils and shortening.

    • J in VA

      I think you’ll find ample research to show that highly processed vegetable fats are unhealthy and that fats such as olive oil, butter and lard have a long track record of human consumption without harm.

      You simply have to ask your self—did humans die from rampant heart disease in the centuries that people ate lard, tallow, butter,etc…the answer is no. Heart disease did not become the problem it is today until people started eatting margarine, soy and corn oils and shortening.

  • Danielle Hertel

    I’ve been spouting off at the mouth about BVO for years! Thank you!

  • Dr. Orna Izakson

    What do you think about the bromine connection with iodine and therefore thyroid issues? 

    • Jim Cooper

      While wackos like Jos Mercola are big on this, there do not seem to be any studies in Pubmed on bromide and thyroid. I did find one 2004 article that said “… that the virtue of the toxic effects of excessive bromide on the thyroid gland and its interference with the biosynthesis of thyroid hormones, as well as the exact mechanism of bromide interference with postnatal developmental processes remains to be elucidated.” 

      Note: not bromine, bromide.

  • Lauren

    And the moral of the story is? I’m moving to France. French women don’t get fat AND they don’t eat photo paper. 

  • Charlotte

    This makes me wonder if my father in laws recent health problems are related to the absurd amounts of Mountain Dew he’s been drinking for years and years…

  • Tracy

    They can use my husband to study, he drinks mountain dew every day, has for years. No matter what I say (and otherwise he eats totally clean), He has gained weight and had to have a pace maker in 9 years ago, he is NOW 41. He doesn’t smoke, or drink at all, so makes you think huh?

  • Hayley Nelson

    What about the cow urine/sperm rumor in mountain dew? Any basis of that?