Here is a query that has been torturing the curiosity lobe of my poor little brain for months. What, exactly, is brominated vegetable oil, and why do soda companies put it in their drinks? It seems citrus is a favored flavor to which to add the...uh...zesty tang? of brominated vegetable oil. I have asked top chemists from the most prestigious institutes in the San Diego area and have stumped them all. The stumper is, why combine bromine, a toxic element at best, with vegetable oil, which seems like a damned gross substance to be adding to fizzy thirst-quenching drinks?
--Rene Hayden, Normal Heights and UCSD
Until we looked into the matter, Rene, Squirt was the official soft drink of the 1999 Robitussin-Matthew Alice Invitational. Well, we forgot to send the invitations anyway, so I guess it doesn't matter.
Brominated vegetable oil is a semi-disreputable substance that in the U.S. and Canada can legally be added (in amounts no greater than 15 parts per million by weight) to citrus-flavored drinkable substances. More than 100 countries ban it; the World Health Organization can't even bring itself to say the letters BVO -- but you know how touchy those foreigners can be. Spend all day eating yak yogurt or Vegemite and you think you know cuisine.
Anyway, without brominated vegetable oil, your favorite lemony-limy soda would look like the Gulf of Alaska in the wake of the Exxon-Valdez. To get fat-soluble citrus flavorings to waft evenly throughout a can of sugar water thickened with seaweed or tree gum, you have to make the specific gravity of the flavor droplets match the specific gravity of the rest of the goop. Bromine has two, maybe three distinct advantages. First, bromine atoms weigh a ton. Pound a few into the vegetable oil molecules, lighten with a soupçon of citrus oil, and you've got a darn near perfect match for the sugar water. Second, bromine ionizes at the drop of a hat. And third, brominated vegetable oil gives lemony-limy-citrusy drinks the hazy appearance we gullible shoppers associate with fresh, tangy, real-fruit taste. BTW, the drink need not be fizzy. Check out your next tub-o-Gatorade for the telltale BVO.
Bromine is extracted from sea water. You don't want to know how. In its liquid or vaporous form, it's lethal. But once you've got the stuff, you're set to make light-sensitive surfaces for photographic paper, lead-eating additives for gasoline, fire-extinguishing material, agricultural fumigants, and lots of other handy stuff. Until 1975, you could make sedatives too. But science got suspicious when droves of overmedicated people were wheeled into psychiatric facilities, diagnosed as loony but actually suffering from bromism -- so much serum bromide that they couldn't stand up or remember their names.
The down side of our oil-soluble friend is that it can build up in fat cells. Fat cells in laboratory pigs, anyway. How big a leap it is from pig science to people science is still in doubt. And not much happened to the brominated pigs anyway. Conservative countries banned BVO, we just limited its use. The Center for Science in the Public Interest, never too shy to yell "Fire!" in a crowded supermarket, lists BVO as an additive that "may pose a risk and needs to be better tested." They put BVO in the same slot with aspartame and quinine; though it must be safer than Olestra, saccharin, and sodium nitrate and nitrite, things they say no rational person would consume.
One extrapolation from the pig studies was the estimate that a 165-pound adult would have to drink 353 12-ounce cans of soda per day for 42 days to have detectable bromine in his/her fat. Laughable, you say? Your intrepid investigator has read the medical report of a man whose diet included three or four liters of BVO'd soda every day. In a month, he was in the ER with confusion, headaches, tremors, memory loss, and fatigue. By the time he was correctly diagnosed two months later, he couldn't walk and was pretty much down for the count. Luckily, the diagnosis of bromism and six hours of hemodialysis brought him around.