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The FDA proposes banning a food additive that's been used for a century

A sign for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is displayed outside its offices in Silver Spring, Md., on Dec. 10, 2020. The FDA says it's considering banning brominated vegetable oil, a food additive.
Manuel Balce Ceneta
A sign for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is displayed outside its offices in Silver Spring, Md., on Dec. 10, 2020. The FDA says it's considering banning brominated vegetable oil, a food additive.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is considering banning brominated vegetable oil, a food additive that was recently deemed unlawful to use in California because of its potentially harmful effects on human health.

The FDA said Thursday it is considering reversing its approval of brominated vegetable oil, or BVO, in beverages following a recent study in rats that found the ingredient could cause damage to the thyroid.

BVO was first used as a food additive in the 1920s. Today, it is used in some sports drinks and sodas to keep citrus flavoring from separating and floating to the top. Major soda makers announced they were dropping BVO several years ago.

"The proposed action is an example of how the agency monitors emerging evidence and, as needed, conducts scientific research to investigate safety related questions, and takes regulatory action when the science does not support the continued safe use of additives in foods," the FDA said.

The FDA removed the additive from its generally recognized as safe list in the late 1960s, but decided there was not enough evidence for a ban. Instead, it limited the acceptable amounts of BVO in beverages to 15 parts per million.

Concerns were raised about its effect on the heart in 1970, but were "resolved," the FDA said. A 1976 studyof the consumption of brominated sesame and soybean oils by pigs found their hearts, livers, kidneys and testicles had been damaged.

Between 2016 and 2020, the FDA developed new methods to more accurately detect BVO amounts in soft drinks and the fat quantities in vegetable oils. However, a 2022 study found thyroid damage in rats as a result of BVO, which led to the FDA's proposal of a ban, it said.

The ingredient is banned from drinks in Europe, Japan, and California approved a ban last month that will go into effect in 2027.

"We recognize that California recently took steps to ban the use of four food ingredients, including BVO, in that state," the FDA said. "The agency is continuously reviewing and reassessing the safety of a variety of chemicals in food to ensure the science and the law support their safe use in food, including all four ingredients that are part of the recent California law."

Several organizations celebrated the FDA's announcement.

"Toxic additives like BVO that have been shown to pose toxic risks to the thyroid and other chronic health problems should not be allowed in our food," Brian Ronholm, the director of food policy at Consumer Reports, saidin a news release. "We're encouraged that the FDA has re-examined recent studies documenting the health risks posed by BVO and is taking action to prohibit its use."

Scott Faber, the senior vice president for government affairs at the Environmental Working Group, saidin a news release that the FDA "has known for decades that brominated vegetable oil is harmful to human health. While we've waited for federal action on this toxic chemical, states – like California – and some major beverage companies have stepped up to remove BVO from their products and get it off grocery store shelves."

In a post on X, formerly Twitter, the Center for Science in the Public Interest called the decision a "big win," adding, "We're pleased to see the FDA catching up!"

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ayana Archie
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
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