Coca-Cola says it will drop a controversial ingredient from some of its drinks including several varieties of Powerade, but it remains in other flavours and products that the beverage giant owns.

On Sunday, the Atlanta-based company announced it will remove brominated vegetable oil (BVO) from the fruit punch and strawberry lemonade flavours of Powerade being sold in the Detroit, Omaha, Neb., New York and Washington, D.C. areas. Bottles from other areas still list it, however, suggesting Coca-Cola Co. may have started phasing it out recently.

The product will also remain in some flavours of Fanta and Fresca (two drinks also owned by Coke) as well as several citrus-flavoured fountain drinks, suggesting the company hasn't phased out BVO entirely.

'It’s good that consumer activism is actually having an effect on these big soft drink companies'- Dietitian and nutritionist Jennifer Broxterman

Last year, PepsiCo’s decided to eliminate the controversial ingredient from their Gatorade sports drinks line. BVO had been the target of a petition by a Mississippi teenager, who questioned why it was being used in a drink marketed toward health-conscious athletes.

The petition on Change.org noted that the ingredient is linked to a flame retardant and is not approved for use in Japan or the European Union. In response to customer feedback, PepsiCo said last year it would drop the ingredient from Gatorade. At the time, Coca-Cola declined to say whether it would remove the ingredient from the two flavours of Powerade that contain it as well. 

Safety questioned 

BVO is a synthetic ingredient created when the chemical element of bromine is combined with vegetable oil. The food additive shares similar properties of brominated flame-retardants that are used to make flammable materials less likely to catch fire.

But the Food and Drug Administration says that brominated vegetable oil is also used as a stabilizer for flavouring oils in fruit-flavoured drinks. Coca-Cola has said in the past that it uses it to "improve stability and prevent certain ingredients from separating."

Numerous medical cases have reported to suggest that including this man-made ingredient in products such as soft and sport drinks could be linked to negative health conditions ranging from skin breakouts, hormone disorders, memory loss, poor coordination and even cancer.

Jennifer Broxterman, a London, Ont.-based registered dietitian and sports nutritionist told CBC that there is merit to question the safety of BVO in beverages. “It is a concern and it obviously has been removed from the GRAS (Generally Recognized as Safe) list. Some of the more adverse health effects that can occur to people who drink large amounts of BVO include things like memory loss, muscle tremors, undiagnosed fatigue, loss of muscle coordination.”

But Dr. Dérick Rousseau, professor of chemistry and biology at Ryerson University says questioning the safety of BVO in beverages may be an indication something else is going on beyond medical concerns.

“For years there have been possible health concerns over BVO, but as far as I know, these have never been substantiated. This move is probably related to cost considerations and/or development of better food ingredients that can replace it.”

Healthy alternative

The decision by Coca-Cola to remove brominated vegetable oil from Powerade is just the latest evidence that food makers are coming under pressure for the ingredients they use. While companies stand by the safety of their products, some are making changes in response to the movement toward foods that people believe are natural.

Broxterman believes Coca-Cola’s decision to remove the contentious ingredient is part of a move towards providing healthier products for consumers.

“When there is a lot of public resistance, with the petition that’s gone around with more than 200,000 signatures, it’s obviously sending a very strong message to the big soft drink players that they need to make a change to their products to take consumers' health in mind," she said.

"It’s good that consumer activism is actually having an effect on these big soft drink companies.”

But, she also recognizes that, as with any other large corporation, the almighty dollar remains to be a company’s bottom line.

“Is it a genuine interest in making the healthiest choice possible? Potentially, but soft drink companies are in the business of making profit. So, if everything fails, we as consumers who are concerned with ingredient lists of one of their sports drinks, it’s in their best interest to remove that ingredient from their formulation.”

With files from The Associated Press