Brominated vegetable oil may soon be banned. But what is it, and how worried should you be?

A row of bottled soft drinks.
The FDA is mulling a ban on brominated vegetable oil, which is used in some sodas and sports drinks. (Getty Images)

The Food and Drug Administration has proposed banning the use of brominated vegetable oil (BVO) as a food additive in the U.S. If the proposal moves forward, the FDA would revoke its regulation that authorizes the use of the ingredient.

This isn't the only time BVO has come under fire lately: California banned it in October with the passage of the California Food Safety Act, which also prohibits the sale of products that contain red dye No. 3. Brominated vegetable oil is already banned in Japan and Europe.

"The agency concluded that the intended use of BVO in food is no longer considered safe after the results of studies conducted in collaboration with the National Institutes of Health found the potential for adverse health effects in humans," James Jones, deputy commissioner for human foods at the FDA, said in a statement.

But what is brominated vegetable oil and what are the concerns surrounding it? Here's what health experts want you to know.

What is brominated vegetable oil?

Brominated vegetable oil is a vegetable oil that's modified with bromine, a chemical commonly used in flame retardants, Jamie Alan, an associate professor of pharmacology and toxicology at Michigan State University, tells Yahoo Life. "Currently it is used to keep citrus flavors stable, although there are limits on how much can be added — 15 [parts per million]," she says.

In 1970 the FDA determined that brominated vegetable oil was no longer "Generally Recognized as Safe" and started overseeing its use under the agency's food additive regulations.

Have I been drinking BVO?

Brominated vegetable oil is "mostly used in fruit-flavored sodas and sports drinks," Keri Gans, a registered dietitian and author of The Small Change Diet, tells Yahoo Life. It's usually found in "so-called off-brand products, including store-brand products and lesser-known, smaller brands that are sometimes sold regionally," adds Tasha Stoiber, senior scientist at the Environmental Working Group.

That includes things like Sun Drop, made by Keurig Dr Pepper, along with Orangette and Great Value Fruit Punch, Stoiber says.

But brominated vegetable oil isn't as commonly used as it once was: The FDA notes that many beverage makers have reformulated their products to remove BVO.

What are the risks associated with brominated vegetable oil?

"Exposure to BVO is associated with several types of health harms," Stoiber says.

Those include impacted thyroid function in animal studies in doses that are similar to what you'd get if you drank soda that contained BVO, along with reproductive toxicity. The FDA also says that recent data shows that bromine can build up in the body over time and have toxic effects on the thyroid, a gland that makes hormones that help regulate blood pressure, body temperature, heart rate and metabolism, among other things.

But Alan points out that all of this is based on animal studies. "Although animal studies are important, they are not always predictive of human toxicity," she says. "Additionally, this additive is limited to very small amounts."

How concerned about this should I be?

Experts say it's important to at least be aware of the potential health risks of brominated vegetable oil, but dosing is likely more important. If you regularly drink beverages that contain BVO, "you might want to make some major adjustments, stat," registered dietitian Vanessa Rissetto, CEO and co-founder of Culina Health, tells Yahoo Life. "If you have one once per year, you're probably fine," she adds.

Gans agrees. "At this point, there is no need to panic, especially if you are experiencing absolutely no symptoms," she says. "However, it's probably a smart idea at this moment to read the label of your favorite citrus-flavored beverage to see if it contains the ingredient."

Overall, Alan offers this advice: "Don't panic. Brominated vegetable oil is present in very low amounts, and there aren't any conclusive human studies at the present. That said, being aware is important."

The FDA is accepting comments on the proposed ban until Jan. 17, 2024.