It's a fine day in America when a young and concerned teenager stands up to a big and powerful company that has potentially been risking consumer health, and wins.
Sarah Kavanaugh, 15, of Hattiesburg, Miss., took a stand online against PepsiCo, which had been using a controversial substance, brominated vegetable oil (BVO), in some fruit-flavored varities of its popular Gatorade sports drink. The synthetic substance is banned in the EU and in Japan but is used in about 10 percent of drinks sold in the U.S.
After Kavanaugh's petition on Change.org garnered more than 200,000 signatures, PepsiCo announced on Friday it would stop using BVO as an ingredient in Gatorade. The substance, which prevents flavorings from seperating, can also cause neurological disorders when ingested in large amounts, according to some studies. Studies in mice found reduced fertility, altered thyroid hormones and even early onset of puberty.
The substance will be replaced by sucrose acetate isobutyrate, considered safe by the FDA. A spokeswoman for Gatorade told The New York Times that the new ingredient will be added to orange, citrus cooler, and lemonade Gatorade, as well as Gatorade X-Factor orange, Gatorade Xtremo citrus cooler and a few other varieties and that it will take consumers a few months to see the changes. But PepsiCo also said it has no plans to remove the ingredient from its popular Mountain Dew and Diet Mountain Dew drinks, "which generate more than $1 billion in annual sales."
"No one wants to gulp down flame retardant, especially from a drink they associate with being healthy," young Kavanaugh wrote in a post entitled 'Victory' on Change.org, the online petition site that boasts more than 20 million users. "But with Gatorade being as big as they are, sometimes it was hard to know if we'd ever win. This is so, so awesome."
She also wrote, "Companies like Gatorade put so much thought into marketing. As someone who loves to drink their products, I'm so glad they're making strides to put as much consideration into their customers' health."
In her original petition, which as of Saturday morning had 206,661 signatures, she said, "I"m naturally a curious and argumentative person doing things like debate team in school. I also love sports like volleyball, and I always believed Gatorade when they said stuff in their ads about how it's good to drink when exercising. And, just like most people, I care about my health. So, as I was sitting at home the other day drinking an Orange Gatorade, I decided to look up some of the ingredients."
"That's when she stumbled upon BVO. Other beverage companies are still using BVO in some versions of their drinks, including Powerade and Fresca (Coca-Cola) and Squirt and Sunkist Peach Soda (Dr. Pepper Snapple Group).
And when Kavanaugh looked up a Scientific American article on BVO, here's what she found, among other facts about the substance: "Brominated vegetable oil, derived from soybean or corn, contains bromine atoms, which weigh down the citrus flavoring so it mixes with sugar water, or in the case of flame retardants, slows down chemical reactions that cause a fire." The article is entitled 'Brominated Battle: Soda Chemical Has Cloudy Health History.'
There's no telling where her health-focused campaign will take the young teenager; she's already thinking of "ways to take this to the next level," she told the Times. But as the activist Erin Brockovich says on her own website, "I believe that people can accomplish anything if given the proper information." So it's highly likely we haven't heard the last of Sarah Kavanaugh.
The teenager is due to appear on the Dr. Oz show this coming week, and who knows: For fans of "Erin Brockovich" or "Norma Rae," could there be a film in this young woman's future? Because she's certainly been heard far and wide. And this could be only the beginning.