Responding to consumer concerns, PepsiCo announced Friday that it will remove brominated vegetable oil, an emulsifier, from citrus-flavored Gatorade sold in the U.S.
Mississippi teenager Sarah Kavanagh launched an online petition in November that drew recent media attention, including a Tribune story Monday, but the company said earlier customer complaints had sparked the reformulation.
"While our products are safe, we are making this change because we know that some consumers have a negative perception of BVO in Gatorade, despite (it) being permitted for use in North American and Latin American countries," Gatorade spokeswoman Molly Carter said in a statement. "As part of this process, we began working on an alternative ingredient to BVO for the few Gatorade flavors that contain BVO, more than a year ago."
Kavanagh, whose petition noted that the chemical shares an element, bromine, with some flame retardants, was ecstatic when she heard the news.
"When I went to Change.org to start my petition, I thought it might get a lot of support because no one wants to gulp down flame retardant, especially from a drink they associate with being healthy," she said. "But with Gatorade being as big as they are, sometimes it was hard to know if we'd ever win. This is so, so awesome."
Some countries, including those in the European Union and Japan, do not allow the use of brominated vegetable oil in food. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration's last review of the chemical, conducted in the 1970s, called for more toxicological testing that was never performed, and it remains a legal dietary ingredient.
Studies on BVO have suggested the chemical can build up in fatty tissues and cause reproductive and behavioral problems in rodents. A 2011 article in Scientific American noted that a few patients who binged on soda "have needed medical attention for skin lesions, memory loss and nerve disorders, all symptoms of overexposure to bromine."
In an interview, Carter said the company spent the year making sure the new Gatorade formulation "would not affect taste or functionality. So we did a lot of sensory testing to make sure we had the right batch, and we feel strongly we do."
Carter said BVO will be replaced with sucrose acetate isobutyrate, or SAIB, "one of the flavor emulsifiers we use internationally."
Although studies have linked SAIB to bile excretion problems in dogs, the chemical is considered safe at up to 20 milligrams per day by the FDA and the World Health Organization's food additive committee. The FDA permits its use in beverages at certain levels.
The newly formulated Gatorade should be on shelves over the next few months, Carter said. Consumers can check for brominated vegetable oil in the list of ingredients, and "until then they can drink other (noncitrus) flavors that do not contain it," she said.
Carter said there is no plan to remove BVO from PepsiCo's Mountain Dew, but the company is always evaluating formulas "to ensure they meet the high standards our consumers expect."
Asked whether the Coca-Cola Co. would follow suit and remove BVO from Powerade or Fanta Orange, the company said in a statement: "While we are confident in the safety of our beverages, we continuously look for ways to improve our products and take consumers' concerns into account."
Change.org said Kavanagh's petition attracted more than 200,000 supporters and was one of its most popular.
"Her campaign is a great example of the shift in power we're seeing between businesses and their customers," said Pulin Modi, senior campaigner at Change.org. "Companies like Gatorade can no longer sit back as thousands of consumers are asking for a change — they're compelled to do something about it."
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