Eliminate beverages that contain brominated vegetable oil? Yes! But not because they contain this additive.
Beverage producers are removing “brominated vegetable oil” from their product. I have no problem with that, it has no nutritional value. But it is interesting to see how this came about. Basically it started with high school student Sarah Kavanaugh who organized a petition asking Gatorade to eliminate a “flame retardant” from some of its beverages. I suppose one can excuse Sarah, since like most high school students her scientific knowledge is very meagre, but meagre science still tends to spread through the Internet like a flame unless it is doused with proper science. Sarah was concerned about brominated vegetable oil which is indeed found in some beverages. But it is not a flame retardant. Perhaps the confusion comes from the term “brominated” because some flame retardants, such as polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) are indeed brominated. But these are chemically quite different from brominated vegetable oil.
Brominated vegetable oils distribute citrusy flavours that are normally not soluble in water throughout the beverage and, as an added bonus, they provide a cloudy appearance reminiscent of real fruit juice. The citrus flavour that is destined for use in drinks is a complex mix of compounds extracted from the rind of citrus fruits. Some of these are not water soluble, meaning that they would either rise to the top or sink to the bottom if the extract were used to flavour a beverage without any further chemical manipulation. It is during this further manipulation that brominated vegetable oil comes into the picture
The citrus flavours extracted from the rind that do not dissolve in water do dissolve in oil. But of course that would not be of much help in concocting a beverage because the flavoured oil, being immiscible with, and lighter than water, would just separate and rise to the top. However, adjusting the specific gravity of the oil to match that of water allows the oily flavour droplets to be evenly distributed through the drink. True, the oil still remains immiscible with water, but that is not regarded as a detriment. Quite the opposite. The resulting cloudy appearance conjures up images of fruit juice. But how do you increase the specific gravity, in other words, the weight of the oil to achieve this desired effect? You brominate it! “Unsaturated” vegetable oils, such as soy or corn oil, contain carbon-carbon double bonds that readily react with bromine, a brownish liquid in its elemental state. Bromine atoms are heavy so that once they become incorporated into the structure of the vegetable oils, they increase the molecular weight to a degree that the oil has roughly the same specific gravity as water.
Needless to say, there is controversy about the use of brominated vegetable oils quite aside from Sarah’s concern that it is a flame retardant. Add anything to a food or beverage that is seen to be “unnatural,” and you are guaranteed to hear some clucking about how that chemical is poisoning us. Indeed, an excessive intake of bromine in virtually any form can be toxic. The emphasis, though, is on “excessive.” Amazingly, until 1975, potassium bromide in doses of several grams a day was used as a sedative. Seems strange that till then nobody had connected taking bromides with an unusually high rate of admission to psychiatric facilities. “Bromism” can cause confusion, hallucinations and even psychosis. Add to this neurological abnormalities, memory impairment and gross skin postules, and you’ve got a nasty condition. But it takes a lot of bromine to cause such misery. Certainly taking grams of potassium bromide can do it, but beverages? Not unless you drink about eight liters a day. Sounds crazy? Well, it has happened.
A case report in the New England Journal of Medicine describes a 63 year old man who presented with terrible red ulcerated nodules on his hands. He volunteered the information that he had been drinking 8 liters of “Ruby Red Squirt” daily for several months. Eliminating the beverage reversed the “bromoderma.” Surprisingly, the medical literature records another case of a man who saw his physician because of increasing headaches, fatigue, balance problems and memory loss. The doctor was stymied as his patient deteriorated until he was unable to walk. Eventually a blood test revealed a stunningly high level of bromine in his blood at which point the patient admitted to drinking two to four liters of a soft drink formulated with brominated vegetable oil daily. Luckily for him, dialysis was able to clear his blood of bromine and he managed to recover.
The moral of the story is that consuming liters and liters of any liquid every day is not a good idea, indeed not even if it is water. One brilliant mind offers the opinion that brominated vegetable oil is processed sludge from the bottom of the ocean. Where do they get such ideas? Well, bromine is in fact isolated from seawater. Of course that has nothing to do with evaluating the health effects of brominated vegetable oil. Maybe that brilliant mind is filled with sludge.
I don’t think Sarah Kavanagh’s mind is filled with sludge, she is undoubtedly a well meaning student whose curiosity was raised by noting the presence of brominated vegetable oil in her Gatorade. She made an observation, but came to the wrong conclusion mostly by ignoring the fundamental tenet of toxicology, namely that only the dose makes the poison, and by mistakenly assuming that all brominated compounds are flame retardants. Sarah was wrong about the supposed toxicity of brominated vegetable oil, but the fact is that beverages that contain this additive are nutritional paupers and are generally loaded with sugar and should be eliminated. But not because they contain this additive.