Beyond BVO (Brominated Vegetable Oil) In Food Products

This is a guest blog post by Melanie Warner

Now that Pepsi has removed brominated vegetable oil from Gatorade, it’s worth asking: Why was it there in the first place?

Here was an ingredient that raised red flags back in the 70s and was only allowed to stay on the market pending further studies, which weren’t done. Those original studies from the 70s showed that bromine builds up in fatty tissues and that rats ingesting large quantities of BVO developed heart lesions. So a compelling case could be made for why BVO should have, at some point, been unceremonious yanked from the food supply.

It’s not the only suspicious ingredient. There are other additives with dodgy safety records and that are still being used in popular foods. The preservative BHA (short for butylated hydroxyanisole) is the best (or worst) example. It is considered a “probable carcinogen” by the Health and Human Services Department and yet found in DiGiorno pizza, McDonald’s breakfast sausages and steak, and some varieties of Tang and Kool-Aid.

A “probable carcinogen” in Tang and Kool-Aid. Good thing those aren’t kids’ drinks.

There’s also the related BHT, which is more widely used and thought to be safer but was flagged for further study in the last systematic review the FDA did of food additives, which ended in 1980. Azodicarbonamide, a manufacturing aide in Subway’s and Sara Lee’s bread, among others, was found in recent tests to break down into the carcinogen semicarbazide when heated. The fat preservative TBHQ has been linked to convulsions, liver enlargement and precursors to stomach tumors in animals.

I mention all this not to scare anyone, but to point out how murky and broken the system of food additive regulation has become. There are no less than 5,000 substances that can be added directly to food (another 3,750 chemicals are used in manufacturing and they may or may not migrate into your lunch), yet there is no database or central place where you can find a list of them. There’s a misnamed FDA site called Everything Added to Food in the U.S. (EAFUS) that includes perhaps TK% of those 5,000 substances.

The unfortunate reality is that the FDA can’t actually account for all the additives going into what we eat. The 5,000 figure is an estimate from the Pew Research Center, which did an excellent report on food additives in 2011, and this total includes some 1,000 substances that FDA has never been notified of. A big chunk of our food additive regulatory system is voluntary. If they decide to, ingredients companies can simply declare their products safe and start selling them.

"the ones (food additives) that have been tested haven’t been assessed for how they might react with the combined multitude of other chemicals and other substances we consume in our food"

I would like to think that all these 5,000 ingredients are fine to eat in small quantities, and the truth is most of them probably, at least when consumed on their own. But we can’t know this this with any certainty because more than half of them haven’t actually undergone proper toxicology testing, according to Pew. And even the ones that have been tested haven’t been assessed for how they might react with the combined multitude of other chemicals and other substances we consume in our food. Someone eating, for instance, a Nutri-Grain bar in the morning, a Subway Chipotle Chicken and Cheese sandwich for lunch, and a DiGiorno pepperoni pizza for dinner will have ingested a total of 68 different nonfood additives (not including vitamins and minerals) that until recently no human beings ate.

There’s also the possibility of over-consuming certain things our bodies only needs in finite amounts. Phosphate, for instance, is an essential mineral that appears commonly in foods like meats and legumes. But when we get it in the form of widely used phosphate-based additives (sodium phosphate, potassium phosphate, etc), it’s much more available to our bodies. A study done last year in Germany suggested that that there are significant risks inherent to getting excess phosphate, notably a hardening of the arteries.

So the question is: why take all these risks with food additives? For me, the takeaway for supermarket shopping and meal planning is this: Eat real, whole (or nearly whole) foods as much as possible and when you buy processed products look for things made with ingredients you don’t need a food scientist to translate.
Melanie Warner is a freelance writer and former staff reporter for The New York Times and senior writer for Fortune magazine. She lives in the (relatively) processed food-free haven of Boulder, Colorado.