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 tissues. A 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.