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What's In That Drink?

Raise your glass to benzene-free

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What's In That Drink?

What is sodium benzoate, and what are its dangers? It may be lurking in your favourite beverage or salad dressing.

It’s a hot day and you are relaxing in the shade with a cold glass of your favourite beverage. What would you do if you found out you were drinking a known carcinogen?

Benzene 101

The chemical sodium benzoate is added as an antimicrobial preservative to many liquid products, mainly beverages. It can also be found in salad dressings, condiments, sauces, juices, and liquid supplements.

While sodium benzoate has been linked to hyperactivity in children, the main concern is that it can form benzene, a known carcinogen shown to increase the risk of leukemia and other cancers.

Interestingly, benzene is a naturally occurring molecule, but there is no reason even small amounts of any toxin should be added to consumable products.

Benzene is formed when salts of benzoic acid, such as sodium benzoate, are used in the presence of an acid, such as citric or ascorbic acid (vitamin C). This chemical reaction is accelerated with exposure to light, heat, or minerals such as iron.

A delayed reaction

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the beverage industry have known about this chemical interaction for almost 20 years. They have also been aware that exposing drinks that contain these ingredients to heat could significantly raise benzene levels.

According to foodnavigator.com, in 1990 the FDA released an internal document revealing beverage companies had approached the agency with concerns about the benzene in their drinks. This prompted laboratory testing by both the FDA and the soft drink industry. While there was no public alert about the benzene issue, the FDA and the soft drink industry agreed that drinks should be reformulated, and consumers and manufacturers should be informed.

In February 2006 the FDA was re-alerted after a new set of independent tests revealed high levels of benzene were still present in various soft drinks. Test results showed the drinks contained levels several times above the World Health Organization’s 10 parts per billion (ppb) limit for drinking water. The FDA and Health Canada’s water limit is 5 ppb, while food safety organizations in the EU set a limit of just 1 ppb.

In reaction to the FDA’s 2006 test results, food safety regulators across the globe also began testing their drinks for benzene.

Class action lawsuits were subsequently brought against several soft drink corporations, most settling out of court in 2006 and 2007. Product reformulation then began, but changes have been slower in Canada than in the US.

Despite the complicated wrestling over benzene, the solution is very simple. Drinks that contain naturally occurring vitamin C, such as orange juice, should not use sodium benzoate as a preservative; drinks that do contain sodium benzoate should not have added ascorbic acid.

Liquid supplements overlooked

Liquid supplements have managed to fly under the benzene radar. These products are often used by those who may have trouble swallowing pills, such as children and elderly people.

The safety concern with liquid supplements is contamination from microbial growth—especially since in most cases the bottle is not consumed in a single sitting, as would a soft drink or juice. In fact, even when taking daily recommended doses, some bottles can last a month or longer.

Take a quick look at a few of the labels of liquid supplements found on store shelves and you’ll find products containing both sodium benzoate and ascorbic (or citric) acid. According to foodnavigator.com, there has been no known analysis of these products, nor is any country currently investigating benzene levels in consumer products other than soft drinks.

However, it’s important to know that the industry has the technology available to produce liquid products without benzoate preservatives. Simply switching to potassium sorbate with hot-fill pasteurization would suffice in most cases.

Why then is sodium benzoate still in products found on the shelf? While there is a possibility that companies just don’t know about this issue, the more likely explanation is that benzoates are cheap and effective antimicrobial preservatives. These companies may believe that safety from microbial contamination is a bigger concern than the consumption of small amounts of benzene.

Consumers call the shots

Corporations produce what consumers will buy. While this may seem to give all the power to the purchaser, it’s not so straightforward. While most consumers like to think they make conscious purchasing decisions, in reality, most spend very little time analyzing products they choose.

Ethically, the burden to ensure safety is the responsibility of manufacturers and regulatory bodies. However, putting profits before this responsibility is, unfortunately, becoming all too familiar. Even consumers who believe they can see through all the marketing messages, more often than not, rely on regulatory bodies that may not always be up to date.

Although the scientific studies and industry debates may be necessary to determine safety, what consumers want is basic: an assurance that the products they purchase are safe. Consumer demand and loyalty is the ultimate goal of any industry—but deceiving shoppers for the sake of profit can, in the end, have negative results.

It’s important to remember, though, that as consumers, we have a relationship with the companies that manufacture the products we buy. The mere purchase of an item sends the message, “We want more.” The best-case scenario is one in which consumers have access to safe and healthy products while corporations retain their customers and corresponding profits.

Corporations have an ethical responsibility to safeguard our welfare. However, we must take charge of our own health and be conscious consumers. Read labels. Ask questions.

Corporations are driven by profits; with our collective buying power, we can play an active role in product development and influence what we see on the shelves—and the addition of benzene definitely has no place in our food chain.

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