Last year, several government-run tests revealed a hidden and harmful ingredient within many popular soft drinks. Found within many of the beverages was a carcinogen called benzene. In the UK, some beverages contained levels as high as 8 times benzene’s legal limit for drinking water (BBC).
After Health Canada performed a similar examination and found benzene present in 20 percent of the drinks tested, it concluded:
While…four products did have benzene levels above the guidelines for drinking water, Health Canada scientists found that exposure to benzene through these beverages does not pose a health concern. In addition, the potential exposure to benzene from beverage consumption would constitute a relatively small portion of overall lifetime exposure from other sources.
Nonetheless, Health Canada has worked with the manufacturers to address this issue and where necessary, the beverage industry has responded by reformulating products. (full report)
The report also concluded that the presence of benzene in these beverages was due to the combination of the preservatives E211 (sodium benzoate) and ascorbic acid (vitamin c). While this finding led people to begin associating sodium benzoate with health risks, there was not much evidence to support any harmful effects that sodium benzoate presented on its own.
Two months after this report was released however, The Independent, a popular British newspaper, published this article revealing previously unknown health risks posed by sodium benzoate. According to the article, research done by Peter Piper, a professor of molecular biology and biotechnology at Sheffield University, found through experiments involving yeast cells that sodium benzoate damages crucial DNA located within the mitochondria, the central hub of living cells.
“These chemicals have the ability to cause severe damage to DNA in the mitochondria to the point that they totally inactivate it,” Piper told the Independent. “The mitochondria consumes oxygen to give you energy and if you damage it…then the cell starts to malfunction very seriously. And there is a whole array of diseases that are now being tied to damage to this DNA – Parkinson’s and quite a lot of neuro-degenerative diseases, but above all the whole process of ageing.”
There has been no investigation into these findings in Canada but according to a follow-up article in The Independent from July of this year, “The Food Standards Agency will be asking the Committee on Mutagenicity to consider Professor Piper’s report. This is an expert scientific committee which can provide an independent, in-depth review of this study.”
Whenever this committee decides to release its review of Professor Piper’s findings, we should know whether or not his experiments with yeast cells have similar implications for human ones. Until then it would be wise to exercise caution in respect to beverages containing sodium benzoate.