As most health-conscious individuals know, artificial preservatives are best avoided when possible. This is easier when shopping for foods to prepare at home. It’s a much more difficult to do this when eating out, done by more families and individuals because of lifestyle changes from decades ago. We do our best, but can’t control the ingredients of everything we consume. This article is about the one time you should definitely, absolutely, be well aware of what you’re eating and the steps you can take to avoid something dangerous to your health.
First, some background on the very cancerous compound called benzene. You may remember the benzene ring from high school chemistry. It’s in petroleum products, like gas, coal, and crude oil. It is extremely toxic and cancerous to humans at most any level. A quick Wiki search will reveal the hazards:
“Benzene increases the risk of cancer and other illnesses… acute myeloid leukemia, aplastic anemia, myelodysplastic syndrome, acute lymphoblastic leukemia, and chronic myeloid leukemia.” Also from Wiki - “The American Petroleum Institute stated in 1948 that 'it is generally considered that the only absolutely safe concentration for benzene is zero.' There is no safe exposure level; even tiny amounts can cause harm.”
Basically, benzene is cancer in a simple molecule. It’s so toxic, the levels are in Parts Per Billion (PPB), not million, for measuring ‘safe’ levels…
Canada: 5 ppb
United States: 5 ppb
European Union: 1 ppb
State limits within the United States: California, Connecticut, New Jersey, and Florida: 1 ppb
Now for some chemistry: Mixing ascorbic acid (vitamin C) and salts of benzoic acid, like the commonly used preservatives sodium benzoate or potassium benzoate, result in the creation of benzene. Read that again. Vitamin C, the compound in your blood, that you need to survive (else you get scurvy), when mixed with this very artificial preservative, results in one of the most cancerous compounds known. You may be asking how this could be, it’s so commonly used. Right, it is commonly used, and so is the prevalence of cancer. Is there a direct link? Has the proper study been done? Do you really care if they figured this out yet?… We can guess your reaction. You do not want to wait for the ‘common knowledge’ of future generations that are shocked about what our current generation consumed daily in our foods.
The food industry is not unaware of this issue. In the 1990s, large US cola companies (yes, that one), used to use ascorbic acid (vitamin c) as a natural preservative in their cans of soda. They added sodium benzoate at some point. This resulted in the above chemistry taking place, with cancerous benzene forming in the cans as they sat on the shelf waiting for purchase. The warmer the cans were on the shelf, the more benzene generated. So much was measured, that a recall of the cans of soda was implemented. The soft-drink companies quickly reformulated and replaced the ascorbic acid with citric acid. They did not remove the sodium benzoate. Go ahead, read your can. No ascorbic acid (vitamin c) will be found from a US manufacturer when sodium (or potassium) benzoate is used. The UK wasn’t exactly paying attention, and had a repeat of this same issue in the recent 2000s. They are discovering that citric acid isn’t at all safe with sodium benzoate either, indirectly causing the same problem.
The difficulty for us is that sodium benzoate isn’t just used in soda. Avoiding soda doesn’t solve the issue. It’s used in lots of bottled/liquid processed foodstuffs. Example: When ordering mussels are your local Carrabba’s, they used to use a processed bottled ‘grill base’ that had sodium benzoate. Would you even think of that? Mussels, the simplest dish (wine, shallots, and butter), needed a dose of sodium benzoate when made to order. This is common with most franchises that use processed foods. Carrabba’s has changed just recently - though still ask! Also, it’s likely in that liquid chai latte mix used at your local cafe. Be aware and always ask to see the bottle when someone is preparing your food from a processed ingredient. That goes for any restaurant, the way to solve this is to ask questions. It's better to withhold support for manufacturers or restaurants that use these artificial preservatives - or change your order to something not processed. Note that the large cola companies are already listening and starting to eliminate this preservative.
Keeping sodium benzoate out of your diet is especially important for individuals eating a healthy diet that would be high in vitamin C. If vitamin C is high in your blood, the last thing you need is bad chemistry caused by consuming an artificial preservative. This is critically important for those using higher doses of vitamin C as an anti-aging/immune booster… taking care of the rest of your diet is a big part of this as well.
UPDATE - July 17, 2019: We've had requests for a list of products containing sodium benzoate (includes benzoic acid or potassium benzoate). You can read ingredient labels when shopping to find it, but as mentioned, it's in liquids and sauces. This includes liquids that contain other foods, like jarred veggies/meats. Some foods it's in:
- Some coleslaws (the sauce) and cold macaroni salads, includes restaurant coleslaw/mac salad. Ask to see the container when ordering... they'll show you!
- Salad dressings. Typically in the creamer/sweet dressings, and less in the vinegar based ones - though not a hard and fast rule.
- Pickles... including restaurant pickles.... plus below
- Any other jarred veggies in liquid... like jarred olives, mushrooms, peppers (even those banana peppers we love :-/), etc.
- Jarred meats in liquid like pigs feet, etc.
- Soda (still in most)... not in Red Bull, though, as that originated in Europe.
- Concentrated liquid drink mixes & flavorings, like chai or syrups used to flavor coffees. Some reformulated to use the preservative potassium sorbate instead.
- Lots of hot sauces. It's not needed, so use a hot sauce that doesn't have it.
- Some soy sauces and related 'asian flavoring' sauces like fish sauce, teriyaki, etc. Use one without it or ask what brand a restaurant uses and check the ingredients online.
- The above (like soy sauce), means it's in a lot of marinades that both restaurants and supermarkets use on prepared food. Ingredients for prepared food in supermarkets will show it though.
UPDATE - Feb. 26, 2023: Recent recalls for benzene in sunscreen/skincare products may be the result of the same preservative (they are still investigating). Please check your body wash, moisturizers, and sunscreen for sodium benzoate (or salts of benzoate) in the ingredients. Unlike food products, less monitoring is done topical on consumer products. This means there may be very high levels of benzene in some products if they are stored long and hot when they contain sodium benzoate. More information about the topical recalls can be found in the reference at the end. We strongly recommend using alternatives such as natural glycerine body washes, natural formula deodorant (Smith's makes one that works), or bar soaps which are not likely to contain the preservative.