Why One 15-Year-Old Girl Wants The FDA To Crack Down On Her Gatorade

A petition calling for beverage producers to stop using a little-known chemical additive in their products has gained more than 150,000 signatures on, sparking a debate about the U.S.’s current regulation of the food and beverage industry.

15-year-old Sarah Kavanagh started the petition after checking the label on her Gatorade and discovering that “brominated vegetable oil” (BVO) — an additive used to keep flavor from separating — was listed on the bottle. When she researched the substance further, she found out that it can be associated with serious neurological and fertility issues, and wondered why it was still allowed to be used in the United States:

Use of the substance in the United States has been debated for more than three decades, so Ms. Kavanagh’s campaign most likely is quixotic. But the European Union has long banned the substance from foods, requiring use of other ingredients. Japan recently moved to do the same.

B.V.O. is banned other places in the world, so these companies already have a replacement for it,” Ms. Kavanagh said. “I don’t see why they don’t just make the switch.” To that, companies say the switch would be too costly.

The renewed debate, which has brought attention to the arcane world of additive regulation, comes as consumers show increasing interest in food ingredients and have new tools to learn about them. Walmart’s app, for instance, allows access to lists of ingredients in foods in its stores.

BVO is found in approximately 10 percent of all drinks sold in the U.S., including Mountain Dew, Fanta Orange, Fresca, and Gatorade. Although evidence suggests serious effects of BVO may not occur unless consumed in very large quantities, its use points to larger issues concerning the way food is regulated in the United States. Serious loopholes in laws and regulations allow thousands of additives into food without any oversight from the FDA.

When setting up regulation of food additives, Congress exempted two types from FDA oversight: those already approved by the agency and those “generally recognized as safe.” It is the second type — “the loophole that swallowed the law” — that is a cause for concern. As the New York Times points out, companies using this loophole “can create a new additive, publish safety data about it on its Web site and pay a law firm or consulting firm to vet it to establish it as ‘generally recognized as safe’ — without ever notifying the F.D.A.” In fact, of the 10,000 additives allowed in food, 3,000 have never been reviewed by the FDA.

And the debate over BVO is just the latest of several controversies surrounding the chemical content of other beverages, in which energy drinks have been tied to more than a dozen deaths, and sugary drinks conclusively linked to obesity.

— Greg Noth