News Review From Harvard Medical School -- Petition Seeks Removal of Gatorade Additive
An online petition drive is seeking removal of an ingredient in Gatorade because of health concerns. So far, nearly 200,000 people have signed. The additive is brominated vegetable oil. It's banned by the European Union and Japan. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) removed it from a list of ingredients "generally recognized as safe." That happened in 1970, after an industry group revoked its approval. The FDA set a limit of 15 parts per million. However, it has never banned brominated oil. Bromine is also found in flame retardants. Animal studies have linked flame retardants to nerve and fertility problems, among other things. About 10% of U.S. soft drinks contain brominated oil. It helps to keep flavorings blended. Animal studies have been mostly short-term. They suggest that bromine may build up in fatty tissues. In one study, rats that consumed large amounts of brominated oil developed abnormal areas of heart tissue. Some side effects have been reported among video gamers and others who binged on drinks containing brominated oil. A few have reported nerve disorders, memory loss or abnormal areas of skin. PepsiCo, maker of Gatorade, says the ingredient is safe. The New York Times wrote about the issue December 12.
By Mary Pickett, M.D.
Harvard Medical School
What Is the Doctor's Reaction?
My husband loves football, and he has always trusted Gatorade. He taught me the trivia that Gatorade got its start when researchers and coaches at the University of Florida used a special formula to rehydrate their athletes (the "Gators") at halftime.
But now worried consumers are petitioning the makers of Gatorade to remove an ingredient. It's called brominated vegetable oil. This ingredient is banned from foods by the European Union and Japan.
There is some evidence that bromine from this additive can build up in fatty tissues. Bromine has been linked to:
- Neurological symptoms
- Thyroid problems
- Abnormal areas of heart tissue
- An early start to puberty
However, most of the studies so far have looked at animals, not people. Safety studies of bromine in food have been very short. They have watched for side effects in just the first three or four months of exposure.
Five years after Gatorade was first marketed, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) became concerned. It removed brominated vegetable oil from a list of substances that the FDA considers to be "generally recognized as safe."
But this ingredient was not formally banned. Therefore, it is still found in about 10% of flavored drinks sold in the United States. The product helps to spread flavor and color evenly in the drink. Some other drinks that contain brominated oil are Mountain Dew, Powerade, Fanta Orange, Fresca, Squirt and Sunkist Peach Soda.
Americans are pretty aware that sodas are bad for our health. They add to obesity, provide calories without nutrition and promote diabetes. But many health-conscious Americans still think sports drinks are different.
A couple of years ago, a study from the journal Pediatrics found that "sporty" kids tend to consume flavored sports drinks. On the other hand, less active kids drink sodas. Flavored sports drinks such as Gatorade have been advertised as if they were part of a healthy lifestyle. It is a good idea to drink plenty of liquids when you exercise. But sports drinks are no healthier for us in the end.
Brominated vegetable oil aside, the hazard of sweet sports drinks and sodas is about the same.
Sports drinks are not carbonated like sodas, but both can increase our total sugar intake. Americans take in way too much sugar. Sugar contributes to obesity, diabetes risk, blood pressure and unhealthy cholesterol levels. It also has been linked to fatty liver and having a large waist.
On average, sweetened drinks make up about 6% of calories for Americans. Experts say that having 12 ounces of a sugar-sweetened drink each day can add about 15 pounds of weight in a year.
Some "energy" drinks contain caffeine. Caffeine is safe for most people, in modest doses. But it can cause side effects such as tremors, anxiety, insomnia, or heart palpitations. It's also not good to get too much caffeine in pregnancy. If you drink caffeine regularly, you can have withdrawal symptoms, such as strong headaches, if you miss your drink.
Several other ingredients that are sometimes included in "energy drinks" could cause problems if you had the drinks regularly. For example, creatine can cause kidney damage if you are exposed to a large amount of it. Gingko biloba can interact with medicine to thin the blood and lead to bleeding.
What Changes Can I Make Now?
Do you need to eat or drink extra sugar if you are exercising vigorously? No. Your body does use extra sugar during exercise. But you can easily get what you need during exercise from your liver, which stores sugar for you.
What drink should you keep on your soccer sideline? Water works well. Or pick a drink that does not contain sugar, such as unsweetened flavored water. Natural fruit juices still add sugar. Some, such as grape and apple juice, are especially high in fructose. This is the natural sweetener in fruit, but it still counts as sugar.
Many companies have started to substitute zero-calorie sweeteners in these drinks. Examples are aspartame (NutraSweet), saccharin, acesulfame potassium (Ace-K, Sunette) and sucralose (Splenda). Zero-calorie sweeteners are different. They do not appear to have some of the effects on our metabolism that we see with other sugars.
Small amounts of these zero-calorie sweeteners have seemed safe in short-term studies. But long-term safety is not known. More research is needed.
What Can I Expect Looking to the Future?
Recently, sports beverage makers have tried to use less sugar in their products. This includes the makers of Gatorade, who created the drink "G2." This drink contains less sugar and no high-fructose corn syrup. It has 7 grams of sugar, compared with 30 to 40 grams in a standard soda.
I think PepsiCo, which is Gatorade's maker, will listen to consumer concerns about brominated vegetable oil. My guess is that the company will drop this ingredient from Gatorade. After all, health-conscious customers want to feel good about their food.