The industrial world uses many preservatives to lengthen products’ shelf lives, and one such preservative is sodium benzoate. What is it? Is it safe?
With many chemicals finding their way into foods, beverages, skincare, and hygiene products, you might be concerned about your safety. Sodium benzoate is a preservative commonly used in many industrial processes, including preserving processed foods and some sodas. Despite its popularity, people hold different opinions about it, with some viewing it as safe while others deem it potentially dangerous. This article examines what sodium benzoate is, its industrial uses, safety, and potential health benefits.
Sodium benzoate: the basics
Sodium benzoate is a white, odorless crystalline artificial preservative made by reacting lye (sodium hydroxide) and benzoic acid. It does not occur naturally, but benzoic acid, its main ingredient, occurs naturally in many plants, including cinnamon, cloves, tomatoes, cranberries, and apples. Besides, some fermentation processes like yogurt production also release benzoic acid as a by-product. Of course, benzoic acid is widely used in many industrial processes as a preservative. However, it is reacted with lye to form sodium benzoate, preferably because of its solubility, making it ideal for use with many products.
Sodium benzoate: industrial uses
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) controls sodium benzoate since it’s among the first products approved for industrial uses. It has many applications, primarily in the food & beverages and cosmetics industry, as explained below;
i. Food and beverage industry
Although sodium benzoate is used in several industries, it’s widely associated with the food and beverage industry. The FDA deemed it safe and put it under the class Generally Recognized As Safe (GRAS), hence when used as intended, there is little t worry about. Its international identification number is 211, hence the code E211 for European markets. Since it has a uniquely sharp smell, it works best with acidic or salty foods and beverages, where it’s used to prevent bacteria, molds, and microbial growth. Some foods it preserves include soy sauce, jelly, salad dressing, sodas, and other condiments.
ii. Cosmetic, medication, and skincare industry
The cosmetic, skincare and medication industry also uses sodium benzoate as a preservative to lengthen products’ shelf life. For instance, cough syrup has this ingredient. Besides, in manufacturing pills, sodium benzoate is used to ensure they don’t break the moment you swallow them by making them smooth. In addition, the preservative is useful in relieving excess blood ammonia levels by forcing them out of urine.
Sodium benzoate is also used in preserving skincare products like wet wipes and hygiene products such as toothpaste and mouthwash. It has many other uses, including stabilizer in photography, preventing car engines and other surfaces from corroding, and lengthening and strengthening particular plastics.
Health concerns associated with sodium benzoate
Some people are skeptical and worried about the wide use of sodium benzoate in different industries. Here are the primary health concerns linked to its usage;
i. It is linked to cancer
With people talking about almost everything causing cancer, you might not want to hear about it anymore. However, there could be a good reason for you to be concerned about the cancer-causing properties of sodium benzoate. While it might not have anything to do with the deadly, the product it forms when it reacts with ascorbic acid (benzene) is carcinogenic. Yet, many beverages like sodas with sodium benzoate can form benzene due to the sugar content. Exposing the beverages to sun and light or keeping them for long exacerbates benzene formation.
In 2005, FDA did a product analysis that examined 200 beverages for benzene. Of the 200, 10 tested positive for benzene and have since been reformulated or have sodium benzoate entirely removed from them. Since 2005, no other report on product analysis has been released. Still, other agencies have tasted some beverages and found them containing more than 5 ppb of benzene, the acceptable limit of safe drinking water by EPA (US Environmental Protection Agency). While FDA deems these levels safe in the beverages, some studies think otherwise, although none has published a report on the link between cancer and the stated benzene levels.
ii. Other health concerns
Apart from benzene formation, other health concerns arise about sodium benzoate use as a preservative. For instance, test-tube studies link it to inflammation and oxidative stress, two primary causes of the commonest chronic illnesses such as cancer, diabetes, and heart disease. Besides, some people experience allergic reactions such as itching after consuming foods and beverages with sodium benzoate, and some complain of having their appetite reduced. In addition, some studies established that drinking too much sodium benzoate added drinks could lead to attention deficiency. Notably, the seriousness of these effects is directly related to the amount of exposure.
Potential medicinal value of sodium benzoate
Despite the health concerns, some studies show that high dosages of sodium benzoate could have medicinal value. Here are some claimed health potentials of the preservative;
- Ammonia excretion; inherited urea cycle disorders, and liver disease could lead to increased blood ammonia levels. Yet, high dosages of sodium benzoate could help flush them out.
- Panic disorder; an observational study found that administering 500mg of sodium benzoate to a woman with panic disorder reduced the frequency and the severity of the condition by 61%.
- Depression; a study showed that when depressed patients took 500mg of sodium benzoate for six weeks, their symptoms reduced by at least 64%.
- Multiple sclerosis; although there is no human study on this, existing animal studies showed that sodium benzoate could boost the production of myelin, the nerve-protecting hormone.
According to FDA, 0.1% by weight of sodium benzoate in foods and drinks is generally safe. Besides, the WHO states 0-0.27mg per kg of the preservative per day as acceptable and safe. Since most people do not exceed the stated figures in a typical diet, there is nothing to worry about currently. Moreover, the body has a mechanism that flushes out the sodium benzoate within 24hours of consumption.
Sodium benzoate is a white, odorless crystalline preservative used in the food & beverage, cosmetics, and medication industry. While the FDA and WHO deem it safe, health concerns are surrounding its use, including the formation of benzene, a carcinogenic substance. According to WHO, the acceptable limit per day is 0-0.27mg per kg body weight. Since most people do not surpass this limit in a typical diet, there is little to worry about.