In November 2012, Sarah Kavanagh, a high school sophomore in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, Googled one of the ingredients in her orange Gatorade and was shocked by what she learned.
Eighteen months and two change.org petitions later, Gatorade has removed brominated vegetable oil (BVO) from all of its sports drinks, and Powerade – the subject of a more recent petition – has pledged to do the same.
As impressive as it is that PepsiCo and Coca-Cola, respectively, would change their sports-drink formulas in the wake of online petitions, what really has people buzzing is that both movements were started by a teenager, says Change.org senior campaigner Pulin Modi.
“It took a 15-year-old girl to Google something to educate us about what’s in products we consume every day,” Modi tells PEOPLE. “Almost as exciting as her actual victory is that she has inspired other people.”
Kavanagh says the article that spurred her to action was a Scientific American report saying BVO contains bromine, which is also used as a flame retardant. It says BVO is banned throughout Europe and Japan, yet is found in 10 percent of sodas in the U.S., and that some patients, after soda binges, have needed medical attention for skin lesions, memory loss and nerve disorders, all symptoms of overexposure to bromine.
“There are people all around the world drinking this and not knowing it’s bad for them,” says Kavanagh, whose Gatorade petition got about 200,000 signatures in just a couple of months – putting it in Change.org’s top 10 all-time food-safety petitions, Modi says. That prompted her Powerade petition last year, which collected 70,000 signatures, which Kavanagh attributes to the sports drink’s smaller market share.
Neither soft-drink giant has acknowledged that Kavanagh’s petitions played a role in their decisions. PepsiCo said last year the removal of brominated vegetable oil had been in the works after the company began “hearing rumblings” from consumers about the ingredient. Coca-Cola said in a statement that phasing out BVO in its drinks internationally “allows us to become consistent with the ingredients we use throughout the world.”
The Associated Press reported last week that bottles of Powerade in fruit punch and strawberry lemonade flavors in the New York, Detroit, Omaha, Nebraska, and Washington, D.C., areas no longer listed the ingredient, although some bottles elsewhere still did.
A Powerade fruit punch bottle in Los Angeles on May 12 still listed BVO behind a long list of ingredients starting with water and the controversial but ubiquitous sweetener high fructose corn syrup.
Kavanagh, now 17 and a junior, says that although the removal of BVO doesn’t necessarily mean that sports drinks are the healthiest products on the planet, she does feel more at ease drinking BVO-free Gatorade.
“The FDA allows a lot of ingredients that are kind of sketchy,” she says. “But I do believe this petition shows that even a young girl from a small town in Mississippi can let companies know how they feel about something, and I believe that everybody who sees something in a product they don’t like should feel empowered to do something about it.”