Coca-Cola removes fire-retardant additive from sodas. Real change, or publicity stunt?

Coca-Cola will be removing a chemical also found in flame retardant from many of its sodas and sports drinks by the end of the year. Coca-Cola joins Subway, Pepsi, and others as the latest food giant to make a recipe change to cater to a more ingredient-conscious public, but are such tweaks really improving the US food system? 

Jeff Chiu/AP
The ingredients on a bottle of Mountain Dew are photographed in San Francisco, Monday, May 5, 2014. Coca-Cola will drop brominated vegetable oil from all its drinks that contain it.

Want to get a major food company to change its ways? You could introduce new government legislation, organize a boycott, the usual. Or, more effectively, you could get your complaint to go viral.

Coca-Cola announced Monday that it will be removing a controversial chemical, brominated vegetable oil (BVO), from many of its sodas and sports drinks by the end of the year. The change comes after about two years of campaigning by food activists and marks Coca-Cola as the latest food giant to make a recipe change to cater to a more ingredient-conscious public.

BVO contains bromine, a chemical compound commonly used in sports drinks and citrus-flavored sodas as an emulsifier, which keeps the drinks more uniform by preventing oily ingredients from separating. It is also used, less appetizingly, as a chemical fire retardant. BVO is banned from food and drinks in the European Union and Japan, and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the US restricts its use to small quantities (foods and drinks should not contain more than 15 parts per million).

But medical experts say BVO can be dangerous in large amounts. The movement to get rid of it gained traction in 2012, when Mississippi teenager Sarah Kavanagh started a petition to get PepsiCo. to remove the chemical from Gatorade products. She garnered over 200,000 signatures, and Pepsi made the change in early 2013 (though it still uses BVO certain Mountain Dew beverages).

 Ms. Kavanagh then created another successful petition to get BVO out of Coke’s Powerade sports drinks. The company responded by one-upping Pepsi and removing it from all of their products, including Powerade, Fresca, and Fanta sodas. 

Still, the beverage giant maintained that all of its beverages were safe, and that the change was made to make global production more uniform.

“Brominated vegetable oil is used in some of our beverages to improve the stability of our products, preventing certain ingredients from separating,” Coca-Cola said in the press release announcing the change. “All our beverages, including those with B.V.O., are safe and have always been — and comply with all regulations in the countries where they are sold.”

BVO will be replaced with sucrose acetate isobutyrate (SAIB), which is already widely used in beverages, and/or glycerol ester of rosin, commonly found in gum, according to the company.

For Coke, the BVO change doubles as a shrewd PR move, one made increasingly often by big companies faced with consumers who have more and more concerns about the ingredients in food products – and, with the rise of social media, a bigger platform from which to share those concerns. Earlier this year, fast food company Subway removed a chemical from its sandwich bread after an influential food blogger pointed out that it was also found in the rubber used to make yoga mats.  Last year, Chick-fil-A announced the removal of several hot-button ingredients, including artificial dyes and MSG, from several of the products on its menu.

No one would argue that BVO  has nutritional value, but it’s still unclear whether such highly publicized tweaks are really the result of food companies cleaning up their acts, or if  they have any major impact on the American food system as a whole. The “yoga mat” ingredient from Subway, for instance, can be found in nearly 500 other food products, from refrigerated dinner rolls to Little Debbie snack cakes, according to a recent report from the Environmental Working Group.

Some experts also question the tactics of some food product change campaigns, where complicated ingredient names are frequently conflated with danger, sometimes unfairly. “Consumers, incorrectly, see a ‘clean label’ as a sign that food is healthy and natural and food companies do their best to deliver,” John Coupland, a professor of food science at Penn State, wrote in a recent blog post.  He warns that some ingredients, despite their unnatural-sounding names, are essential to making food safe, and argues that companies would be better off being transparent about their ingredients at the outset, rather than using re-formulations as a form of public appeasement.

Furthermore legislation for bigger changes, from labeling genetically modified organisms (GMOs) to reducing soda sizes, have been met with spirited opposition from the country’s biggest food producers. But companies are held more accountable than ever before, and Mr. Coupland argues that more informed activism could accelerate positive change. “Activists should continue to aggressively campaign for better food systems, food companies are desperate to appeal to consumer demand and as this case shows they can and will change fast,” he wrote about the Subway bread campaign in early February.

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