Have you seen this article floating around the internets?
80% of Pre-Packaged Foods in America Are Banned in Other Countries from Babble.com/Shine Food
Oh my God?! How could this be?
The article is a laundry list of food additives/components that are linked to another laundry list of vague detrimental health effects. For example: “linked to allergies, ADHD, and cancer in animals” or “known cancer-causing agent.”
The only “citation” (consider those sarcastic air quotes) is a book this “article” seems to be a marketing tool to promote. (And if you check out the book on Amazon, it’s full of helpful pseudoscientific hints like “Capsaicin, found in cayenne, has thermogenic properties that increase you blood flow and metabolism.” BS.) That was a major red flag on the “How to recognize pseudoscience check list“- so my skepticism kicked it up a notch.
Now, I have a full time job, so I can’t debunk each compound mentioned, so I’ll just focus on the one closest to my heart, or perhaps I should say, my gastro-intestinal tract: Brominated Vegetable Oil, supposedly found in my favorite soft drink, Fresca, which is “banned in more than 100 countries ‘because it has been linked to basically every form of thyroid dieases-from cancer to autoimmune diseases-known to man.'” (Source)
I turned my attention to PudMed, for reliable, peer-reviewed, primary literature for some actual evidence. I found two studies with some hard data, albeit from animal models, and one that estimated how much BVO was actually in soft drinks.
First up- so how much BVO are the rats in these studies eating? (keep in mind, animal studies are a FAR cry from actual health impacts in actual humans!)
This study by Lawrence et al published in Lipids just looked at accumulations of metabolic byproducts of BVOs in the liver, heart and fat tissue of rats. They fed the rats 0.24g/kg of body weight per day of brominated olive oil or brominated sesame oil and found the corresponding byproducts in those tissues. Now, for perspective- if a person were to eat 0.24g of BVO per kilogram of body weight, just how much would that be?
If the average US adult male weighs 185lbs, he would have to eat 20.16g of BVOs. The average women, at 155lbs would have to eat 16.8 grams.
Vorhees et al published a study in Teratology way back in 1983 where they fed rats BVOs in ranges of 0 to 2% if their diet. They did find significant health effects- including weight loss, sterility, and behavioral impairments at the various doses. Just how much BVOs would humans have to consume if they ate BVOs as 2% of their diet. Well, if the average American consumes about 2 tons of food per year (source), one would have to eat about 1.6 ounces (or 45.4g) or BVOs per day.
So how much BVO is in my favorite soft drink? I found an estimate from Yousef et al here. They estimated that “several commercial soft drinks were found to contain BVO in a range 1.8-14.52mg/L.”
This begs the question- how much soda would a person actually have to drink to get near the doses used in the animal studies?
Based on my previous calculations and Yousef et al’s range, the average man would have to drink between 1,379 and 11,200 LITERS OF SODA PER DAY to replicate the Lawrence et al study! That’s 689 to 5600 2-liter bottles of Fresca IN A SINGLE DAY! For the average woman, that would be between 1,159 and 9,333 liters. We are talking on the order of 1000 times a person blood volume of soda. Even water can kill you if you drink enough of it (see water intoxication aka hyponatremia).
It’s even crazier if you look at the Voorhees et al study, which actually showed health impacts, not just accumulation. To replicate the doses in the Voorhees study, using Yousef’s measured range of BVO in soda, a person would have to consume between 3,131 and 25,222 liters of soda in a single day!
Am I saying that BVOs are A-OK? No, I did not find a study to support that, and most studies concluded that given their results, further research was needed to figure out the health impacts in humans. Further, it is possible that BVOs are more potent in humans or have entirely different health effects than in rats. BVOs may also be in other foods (although a PubMed search for ‘brominated vegetable oil’ only turns up estimates of BVO amounts in soft drinks as top line hits, see here). The point of this exercise was merely to illustrate how far removed rat studies are from actual, actionable human behaviors.
Remember that a study in rats is never directly applicable to humans- especially when you are talking of massive, biologically irrelevant doses of a compound (nobody is drinking 10,000 liters of soda a day).
So, overall, I wouldn’t waste my money on that book the article is marketing, and I won’t lose sleep over the 5mg of BVOs in the can of Fresca sitting on my desk.
Shame on you Babble and Yahoo Shine for using scare tactics to parade marketing materials as an evidence-based news article.
This kind of schlock has been peddled before by these kinds of sites. Click to see take downs of: Fukushima radiation causing infant mortality in the US, deodorant causing breast cancer, adverse effects of pitocin on newborns, anti-obesity campaigns scaring kids into eating disorders, and sleep training/crying it out causing brain damage.
For some level-headed advice on how to spot BS/pseudoscience, see here.