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Issue 93: Fireworks in Your Diet?

They call it a safe food additive that’s been used for a century as a preservative to ensure products remain free of fungi or bacteria, but sodium benzoate (E211) doesn’t do much in the way of preserving health. In fact, studies indicate that it can damage DNA, leading to neurodegenerative diseases, accelerated aging, liver damage and may heighten hyperactivity in children or cause hives, asthma or other allergic reactions in sensitive individuals. 

Let’s take a closer look at this supposedly safe additive that’s infiltrated our diets and lifestyle. One of the most disturbing findings on the adverse health effects of sodium benzoate is that it can damage and shut down vital parts of DNA in a cell’s mitochondria. Mitochondria, by the way, consume oxygen for cells to function healthily and to generate our body’s energy. In other words, sodium benzoate can bring our health to a halt at the cellular level.

Peter Piper, Ph. D., a professor of molecular biology and biotechnology from the University of Sheffield, has been studying the negative effects of sodium benzoate since 1990. Piper says, “The mitochondria consume the oxygen to give you energy, and if you damage it—as happens in a number of diseased states—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 neurodegenerative diseases, but above all, the whole process of aging,” says Piper.

Sodium benzoate, as well as other food additives, can also have a negative effect on kids. According to many experts, sodium benzoate can cause heightened hyperactivity in children—and not just for those kids who are ADHD. It applies to kids in general and can mimic ADHD symptoms, even in kids who are normal.

Jim Stevenson, Ph. D., a professor of psychology at Southampton University, author of a study published in a 2007 edition of the Lancet, says: “This [the effects of sodium benzoate on hyperactivity] has been a major study investigating an important area of research. The results suggest that consumption of certain mixtures of artificial food colors and sodium benzoate preservative are associated with increases in hyperactive behavior in children.”

Sodium benzoate has health risks on its own, but it can turn into a carcinogenic, or cancer-causing, chemical called benzene if it’s mixed with ascorbic acid (vitamin C), as is the case with many carbonated beverages or fruit drinks. Add some heat to these soft drinks or sodas—such as cartons sitting in a warehouse or garage in hot temps, or even in your car during hot spells—and benzene levels can spike. How long soft drinks have been exposed to light or how long they’ve been on the shelf may increase benzene levels, too.

The truth is that benzene is identified as a Class A carcinogen by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and prolonged exposure can cause death, blood disease such as leukemia, bone marrow damage, anemia (due to a decrease in red blood cells) as well as excessive bleeding and immune system suppression, leading to greater susceptibility to infections. Those are just the most serious benzene effects, though. Benzene can also cause dizziness, tremors, rapid heart rate, headaches, drowsiness, confusion, unconsciousness, stomach irritation, convulsions or vomiting.

The amounts of benzene floating around in our soft drinks may astound you. In short, the levels are often unlawfully high. An investigation by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) uncovered the FDA’s data on benzene in soft drinks. It indicated that 79% of diet soda samples tested over a six-year period from 1995 through 2001 were contaminated with benzene at levels above the federal limit for benzene in tap water of 5 parts per billion (ppb).

Here’s how it panned out: The average benzene level was 19ppb, which is nearly four times the tap water standard. The maximum benzene level detected was 55 ppb, which is 11 times the tap water limit. One cola drink, however, was off the charts with benzene, coming in at 138 ppb, about 27 times the tap water limit.

Soft drinks aren’t the only products containing sodium benzoate, however. Some foods naturally contain sodium benzoate, while others—like conventional processed foods, salad dressings, condiments, pickles, cough syrups and even most mainstream manufactured vitamins—have sodium benzoate added.

Be sure you check out a product’s ingredients label prior to buying it or ingesting it. You don’t want this explosive chemical in your diet.


This information is intended for educational and informational purposes only. It should not be used in place of an individual consultation or examination or replace the advice of your health care professional and should not be relied upon to determine diagnosis or course of treatment.

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