The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has banned the use of brominated vegetable oil (BVO) in food and drink products due to safety concerns. From 2 August 2024, manufacturers will have one year to comply with the new rule by reformulating, relabelling, and depleting their inventory of products containing the additive, which is used as an emulsifier that keeps flavour oils in beverages in suspension.

The FDA’s action follows its proposal in November 2023 to revoke the regulation authorising the use of BVO in food, based on research that questioned the additives safety. Some individual states have also recently introduced their own measures to reduce the use of BVO. For example, in October California became the first state to ban BVO, along with three other food additives, with a law that comes into effect from January 2027.

‘Reassessing the safety of chemicals that have been previously authorised for use in or with foods, as new, relevant data become available, is a priority for the FDA,’ said Jim Jones, the FDA’s deputy commissioner for human foods, in the agency’s 2 July statement. ‘We are committed to conducting reassessments to ensure that our original determinations of safety have held up over time,’ he added.

The FDA’s conclusion that BVO is no longer considered safe in food is based in part on research carried out in collaboration with the US National Institutes of Health that found the potential for adverse health effects in humans. In particular, the agency cited animal studies indicating BVO’s toxicity to the thyroid.

Over time many beverage makers have reformulated their products to replace BVO with an alternative ingredient, and today few beverages in the US contain BVO. The additive was banned in the UK and several other European countries in 1970, while the EU followed suit in 2008.

According to Hong Kong’s Centre for Food Safety, suitable alternatives to BVO for beverage and food uses include sucrose acetate isobutyrate and glycerol ester of wood rosin.

‘A relatively small but significant number of manufacturers have persisted in using BVO, with Keurig Dr Pepper’s Sun Drop perhaps the most recognisable,’ Thomas Gremillion, who directs food policy at the Consumer Federation of America, tells Chemistry World. ‘A number of replacements are available, in part because the substance has been banned in Europe and other jurisdictions abroad for so long, but food companies are loathe to reformulate and risk damaging the brand associations that many of their customers developed as children,’ he adds.

Thomas Galligan, the principal scientist for food additives and supplements at the Center for Science in Public Interest in Washington, DC, says the FDA’s action is long overdue. ‘We are happy, but we wish it would have happened much sooner because the safety concerns with BVO emerged decades ago,’ he states.

The vast majority of food and beverage manufacturers have phased out BVO, and it is unclear how many are still using it, Galligan notes. ‘As to why some of these companies haven’t stopped, I don’t know – I think they are probably resistant to change because change costs money,’ he adds.