NPR Story
2:07 pm
Tue May 6, 2014

Coca-Cola Removes Flame Retardant Chemical From Powerade

Originally published on Tue May 6, 2014 3:48 pm

Coca-Cola has decided to change the formula of several of its beverages by removing the controversial ingredient brominated vegetable oil (BVO).

The move comes after a petition on Change.org by Mississippi teenager Sarah Kavanagh, to have BVO removed from Pepsi’s Gatorade sports drink, garnered over 200,000 signatures.

Pepsi agreed to remove the ingredient, and Kavanagh launched a similar petition for Coke with regards to Powerade.

On Monday, Coke announced it has already made the modification to several of its Powerade drinks, and that it would be removing it from all of its beverages that contain it.

BVO contains bromine, which is also used as a flame retardant and can build up in fatty tissue, leading to health problems.

The Wall Street Journal’s Jason Bellini joins Here & Now’s Jeremy Hobson to discuss the changes in the beverages, as well as overall sales of soft drinks.

Guest

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Transcript

JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:

From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Jeremy Hobson. This is HERE AND NOW.

Coca-Cola has joined Pepsi in announcing it will no longer use the controversial ingredient brominated vegetable oil or BVO in its beverages. That announcement follows an online campaign that pointed out that BVO has been patented as a flame retardant. Joining us now to talk about this is Jason Bellini of the Wall Street Journal. Hi, Jason.

JASON BELLINI: Hi, Jeremy.

HOBSON: So I mentioned that online campaign, which by the way was started by a teenager from Mississippi.

BELLINI: That's right, Jeremy. A 17-year-old girl who decided she wanted to get BVO out of Pepsi's Gatorade and Coca-Cola's Powerade. In fact, with Gatorade, she managed to get 200,000 signatures on a petition on Change.org where she pointed out, as you just did, that one of the ingredients--or that BVO is an ingredient that is patented as a flame retardant, and it's not approved for use in Japan, in the European Union.

HOBSON: Well, tell us what it is exactly.

BELLINI: Well, it's what's known as an emulsifier. It's used to distribute flavors more evenly in fruit flavored drinks, the flavors that we have in them that are oils that need to be spread throughout. Now, the Center for Science in the Public Interest, which is a health advocacy group, they note that the FDA permitted the use of BVO on an interim basis in the 1970, pending an additional study.

But decades later that study's never happened, and the group says that BVO is still on the interim list. Now, we should point out that both Coke and Pepsi say, you know, we're taking this out of our products, Coke by year's end, but we still stand by the notion that this is a safe product.

HOBSON: Yeah, and well, I should note from personal experience that I've had a number of Cokes and Pepsis in my life and I'm still here right now. But what are they going to put in its place?

BELLINI: What are they going to put in its place? Well, Coca-Cola is saying that they're going to use sucrose acetate isobutyrate.

HOBSON: That's supposed to be better than BVO, I guess?

BELLINI: Supposedly. Well, it's not listed as a fire retardant. At least they have that going for it. And another glycerol product that's used in chewing gum and other drinks, another ingredient that's difficult to announce. Pepsi hasn't said what they're going to be using to replace BVO in their drinks, and how they plan to make Mountain Dew more all natural.

HOBSON: And this comes at a time, Jason, that a lot of people are moving away from these sodas all together and towards healthier drinks. How are the sales of sodas doing right now?

BELLINI: Well, in the United States, abysmally, I mean, for the last 13 years Americans have been drinking less Coke and now even Diet Coke sales have been falling off a cliff. Globally, sales of soda has been slowing. You know, it's still growing year by year, but not as fast as it had in the past.

And that's because, you know, the same concerns that we have here about sugar intake and obesity are now spreading worldwide. But sales of Coke's non-sodas include Minute Maid juice, Dasani water, Powerade sports drinks, those went up last year by volume.

HOBSON: So, other than taking BVO or other flame retardants out of their drinks, what are these companies doing to increase sales and try to get their popularity back?

BELLINI: Well, and it's interesting, in the case of Coke, their CEO is doubling down on Coke. And in fact, they're going to boost their advertising on Coke and other new products by over a billion dollars over the next three years globally. Last year they spent $3.3 billion advertising Coke. And they're going to be using singer Taylor Swift as their pitch woman.

So, they're not planning to give up any time soon on Coca-Cola. I mean, that's really, that is their sort of baseline product.

HOBSON: Jason Bellini of the Wall Street Journal. Jason, thanks so much as always.

BELLINI: Thank you.

HOBSON: This is HERE AND NOW.

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