Sodium Benzoate
Chester J. Zelasko, Ph.D. | September 28, 2007

Our food supply is generally safe because the food industry adds preservatives to manufactured foods such as jams, jellies, soda, juice, and many other foods. These preservatives can prevent the growth of molds, bacteria, yeast, and fungi. One such preservative is sodium benzoate, the sodium salt of benzoic acid. Recent headlines have suggested that this preservative approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is not as safe as was thought. This Newsletter will review the reports and examine the research to separate the hype from reality.

Background Information
Benzoic acid has good anti-microbial characteristics, but in its crystalline form doesn’t dissolve well in water. As a result, a salt is made by combining sodium with benzoic acid to make sodium benzoate. When added to acidic foods such as juices, sodas, and pickles, it can dissolve back to benzoic acid to kill microbial agents. The reason that benzoic acid works so well to destroy bacteria and other bugs is that it interferes with their ability to produce energy. This is an important point for later discussion.

The FDA has approved sodium benzoate as a food additive that is Generally Recognized As Safe (GRAS). The amounts added to foods and drinks are less than 0.1%, not because it’s harmful but because it’s very bitter and would negatively affect the taste of the food.

The Benzene Scare
In late 2005, the FDA received information from a private laboratory that had discovered measurable amounts of benzene in soft drinks. Benzene is a known carcinogen; it can be formed from a combination of benzoate salts (such as sodium benzoate) and vitamin C if conditions such as elevated temperatures and light are present. Interestingly, sugar inhibits the formation of benzene under these conditions. Some benzoic acid is found naturally in foods including fruit (strawberries, raspberries, cranberries, apricots, prunes, and nectarines) and vegetables (broccoli and peppers).

The FDA tested over 200 soft drinks and juices (1). They found four that had both vitamin C and sodium benzoate and had higher than acceptable benzene levels. Another fruit drink that contained natural benzoates and added vitamin C also exceeded the upper limit for benzene. The companies were contacted and the products reformulated to lower the benzene levels to acceptable levels.

There’s no evidence that even a single case of cancer could be attributed to excessive benzene production in soda and fruit drinks. However, that certainly didn’t, and still doesn’t, stop the “experts” from citing the part of the study that fits the story they want to tell.

“Sodium Benzoate Causes Brain Disorders”
“Research from a British university suggests a common preservative (sodium benzoate) found in soft drinks has the ability to switch off vital parts of DNA. That can eventually lead to cirrhosis of the liver and degenerative diseases such as Parkinson's.” (2) This statement has gotten significant play on the Internet in the past six months. Health experts have jumped on this as yet another way the food industry is poisoning our food supply.

There are really only two things you need to know. First, as mentioned earlier, benzoic acid inhibits microbes from producing energy at the mitochondrial level. Second, the expert cited does all of his research on yeast. It’s true, that when exposed to sodium benzoate, the yeast in his laboratory can’t produce energy and they die. That’s exactly what’s supposed to happen because they are yeast.

The human body is a complex organism with many checks and balances. Any substance has to be digested, absorbed, carried through the bloodstream, allowed into cells, allowed into the mitochondria, and then maybe it might have some effect. There’s no evidence that sodium benzoate or its derivatives do that. There’s not a single human study to suggest that this preservative will cause Parkinson’s or any disease. Yet this headline keeps being propagated around the world.

“Sodium Benzoate Causes Hyperactivity”
“A combination of artificial colorants and sodium benzoate in beverages and processed foods can cause hyperactivity or attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in young children.” (3) This headline is the result of a study published this month (4) by the same group of researchers who published a similar study three years ago (5). Both studies were very well designed from a logistics perspective; the researchers took into consideration that some children might have allergies to preservatives and food colorings and that some might already be hyperactive. The children were given a placebo or one of two drinks that both contained sodium benzoate and two levels of food colorings. In both studies, markers of hyperactivity were increased in children taking the food additives compared with those in the control groups.

The problem is not in the design of the study. It’s in the way hyperactivity was assessed. Parents and behavioral professionals were asked to observe changes in things like attention, focus, wriggling, and a number of other behaviors. These are very difficult to assess accurately in three-year-olds.

We’re not talking about completely docile children who are all of a sudden turned into chandelier-swinging escapees from a carnival--the differences in behavior were very subtle. In fact, in one of the two studies, professional observers did not note any differences in children who were and were not taking the food additives. Giving the researchers the benefit of the doubt, the real problem is that the sodium benzoate was combined with other food additives such as food coloring. Whether the sodium benzoate alone would have an impact is unknown because it wasn’t tested.

Research You Didn’t Read About
Here’s a study you probably didn’t hear about--it never got any press. Researchers used sodium benzoate in drinking water on animal models of multiple sclerosis (6). The sodium benzoate inhibited those factors that de-myelinated the nerve cells in the spinal cords of subject animals. That means it could stop the disease in its tracks. It’s just the first step in a very long process from animal to human, and it may never get any more optimistic than this single study. To suggest it’s a cure for multiple sclerosis would be just as irresponsible as the headlines I’ve just covered. We may not like it, but science takes time.

Bottom Line
We want a safe food supply and in order for that to happen, substances that cause illness have to be eliminated. Preservatives such as sodium benzoate have been used safely for many years. There’s nothing in any of these studies that suggest that sodium benzoate consumed in reasonable amounts is harmful.

But there’s one more factor in all of this: you or your children may not process preservatives well or you may be allergic to them. That’s a real possibility. Eliminate them for two weeks and see how you feel; that’s the only way you’ll really know how preservatives affect you.

Drink products with sodium benzoate or not--that’s your choice. But base it on whether you’d prefer not to use artificial preservatives, not on incomplete research and scare tactics.

  1. Data on Benzene in Soft Drinks and Other Beverages. FDA--CFSAN/Office of Food Additive Safety. May 19, 2006.

  2. Martin Hickman. May 2007.

  3. Ben Wasserman. Food additives linked to hyperactivity in children. 9/3/2007.

  4. McCann D, et al. Food additives and hyperactive behaviour in 3-year-old and 8/9-year-old children in the community: a randomised, double-blinded, placebo-controlled trial. Lancet. 2007 Sep 5; [Epub ahead of print].

  5. Hutchinson E, et al. The effects of a double blind, placebo controlled, artificial food colourings and benzoate preservative challenge on hyperactivity in a general population sample of preschool children. Arch Dis Child. 2004;89(6):506-11.

  6. Brahmachari, S, et al. Sodium Benzoate, a Food Additive and a Metabolite of Cinnamon, Modifies T Cells at Multiple Steps and Inhibits Adoptive Transfer of Experimental Allergic Encephalomyelitis. J Immunol. 2007;179(1): 275–283.
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