Controversial ingredient removed from Powerade — thanks to a teenager

May 6, 2014 at 4:55 p.m. ET

Coca-Cola is starting to phase out brominated vegetable oil from its Powerade line — and the move was inspired by a teenager and her petition.

Woman drinking sports drink
Photo credit: PhotoAlto/Brand X Pictures/Photodisc/Getty images

Brominated vegetable oil (BVO) is a controversial ingredient that appears in several popular American soft drinks, such as Mountain Dew, and until recently, some flavors of Gatorade. A teenager noticed that it's also an ingredient in some flavors of Powerade as well, so she started a petition asking Coca-Cola to remove it.

The company listened, and BVO is starting to be phased out. How did she become inspired to start the petition, and why does the U.S. continue to use BVO, despite the fact that several countries and the European Union have banned its use?

Online petitions can make change

There are countless online petitions, but not all of those are successful. Some, however, make a lot of sense because they ask the right questions. Sarah Kavanagh, a teenager from Mississippi, discovered that words can indeed move mountains when she successfully petitioned PepsiCo, asking the company to remove BVO from the flavors of Gatorade that it appeared in. The company said they had been working on a different ingredient for a year or so, but due to her petition, they listened. Now, you will not find BVO on the ingredient list of any Gatorade bottles you come across in the store.

Kavanagh's next target was Powerade. She and her friends discussed BVO's presence in some of their favorite flavors, such as fruit punch. Why not take on Coca-Cola next? So a new petition was launched, this time aimed at the powers-that-be at Coca-Cola, asking, "Why do these companies put all this weird, crazy stuff in our food and drinks?" And now, shipments of Powerade are going out, minus BVO.

BVO in our drinks

BVO is routinely added to certain citrus-flavored soft drinks (upwards of 10 percent of beverage products in the U.S. contain it) because it helps keep the flavors from separating during distribution. In the U.S., it's considered a "generally recognized as safe" food additive, but its use in food and beverages has been banned in the European Union, Japan and India.

Kavanagh targeted the sports drinks' parent companies because both Powerade and Gatorade are marketed as a "healthy drink" that is used by kids and athletes. However, there is growing noise about the potential health risks of consuming BVO, such as issues with the endocrine system.

Other petitions making changes

Sports drinks aren't the only area of concern when it comes to what we consume, and Kavanagh's online petitions aren't the first that have garnered attention from company headquarters and resulted in changes.

Subway, the sandwich shop that makes eating fresh trendy, came under fire from a food blogger who challenged them to rid their sandwich bread of an ingredient that is also used in yoga mats. The public pressure led to the corporation swapping out the questionable substance, and it leads to more people thinking about marketing and the unhealthy ingredients that are included in foods and drinks that are touted as being healthy.

It's encouraging that one person can, indeed, make a difference.

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