The Toxic Chemical Leaving Your Sports Drink

Pepsi takes flame retardants out of Gatorade as consumer pressure mounts.

January 28, 2013

A flame retardant chemical is leaving some drinks, but not all.

After months of intense consumer pressure, beverage giant Pepsi is taking flame retardants out of Gatorade products.


The announcement comes about a year after listed brominated vegetable oil, or BVO, as one of the 15 Grossest Things You're Eating and published 3 Surprising Reasons to Give Up Soda, stories that garnered national attention. Late last year, a Mississippi teenager, Sarah Kavanagh, launched a petition campaign urging PepsiCo to get the controversial flame-retardant chemical out of Gatorade sports drinks, an effort that pulled in more than 200,000 online signatures. While PepsiCo says taking brominated vegetable oil out of Gatorade was already in the works when the petition launched, many believe it was the straw that broke the camel's back. "I think it's delicious that a 15-year-old made this happen," says Marion Nestle, PhD, MPH, author of Food Politics and professor of nutrition, food studies, and public health at New York University.

Although never thoroughly tested for health impacts, BVO has been used in drinks like Fanta Orange, Mountain Dew, Gatorade, Powerade, Sunkist Pineapple, and other beverages for years. Originally intended for use as a flame retardant in plastics, the food industry stumbled on another use for BVO in manufactured liquid drinks. But here's some tough news to swallow: Emerging reports suggest that overindulging in these BVO-containing drinks could result in symptoms of bromine poisoning, including skin lesions, memory loss, and nerve disorders.

There were concerning signs years ago, too. Rodent studies found BVO caused heart damage. The kicker? It's a totally unnecessary chemical used for purely cosmetic reasons, a chemical tool that keeps artificial flavor oils suspended and provides a cloudy appearance. "Brominated vegetable oil is a poorly tested and possibly dangerous food additive, and there's no reason to use it in Gatorade or other drinks," explains Michael F. Jacobson, executive director of Center for Science in the Public Interest, in a statement. "After all, safe substitutes are used in Europe and elsewhere. It's crazy that the Food and Drug Administration has let BVO linger in the food supply on an 'interim' basis for 42 years."

Jacobson applauds PepsiCo's move to voluntarily take the chemical out of Gatorade, but says the sports drinks still shouldn't be considered healthy. "Gatorade without BVO is nutritionally no better than with it," he says. "A typical 20-ounce bottle has 130 calories, all from its 34 grams of refined sugars, which promote obesity, diabetes, and heart disease."

Nestle agrees. "Water is best for anyone other than professional or elite athletes," she says.

Here's how to cut flame retardants out of your diet:

Be a healthy hydrator. Instead of reaching for sugary drinks to hydrate, choose water or, if you're really working out hard, an electrolyte-rich pick like coconut water. If you need a flavor kick, try coconut-water-based Greater Than sports drinks. They're free of BVO, high-fructose corn syrup, and artificial dyes.

Avoid chemical sodas. Mountain Dew and some other orange sodas contain BVO. Plus, they're loaded with dangerous sugars and potentially harmful artificial food dyes. If you still want to enjoy some pop without the chemical pollution, try one of the sodas on our 8 Healthy Sodas list, including Bionade and Reed's Extra Light Ginger Brew.

Eat lower on the food chain. Flame retardants used in furniture and electronics often wind up in the environment, building up in the fat of animals and ending up in dairy and meats. A University of Texas School of Public Health study found disturbingly high levels of flame retardants in butter. Some of the highest contamination levels likely came from butter wrappers, giving you a good reason to try your hand at making your own butter.