Label Decoder: Sodium Benzoate

Many ingredients listed on food labels might as well be in a foreign language. You see the same ones pop up all the time, but do you know what they really mean? In this new series, we're tackling some common label names -- some are perfectly fine for you, others not so much. First up: sodium benzoate.

Many ingredients listed on food labels might as well be in a foreign language. You see the same ones pop up all the time, but do you know what they really mean? In this new series, we're tackling some common label names -- some are perfectly fine for you, others not so much.

First up: sodium benzoate.

What is it?

Sodium benzoate -- and its close relatives benzoic acid and potassium benzoate -- are preservatives that prevent microorganism (yeast, bacteria, etc.) from growing in acidic foods (think pickles or fruit juice). It’s also common in carbonated drinks such as soda.

Any Risks?

Although the government says that it’s safe for most people to consume, folks who are sensitive to sodium benzoate have reported hives and other allergic-type reactions. Research also points to negative effects on kids who have Attention Deficit-Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).

More alarmingly, sodium benzoate reacts with vitamin C (a.k.a. ascorbic acid) in drinks and forms benzene, a chemical that can lead to leukemia and other cancers. Because of this reaction, the FDA began urging companies in the 1990s to stop combining sodium benzoate and vitamin C; major beverage-makers only began reformulating their drinks after a lawsuit was filed in 2006. Last year, in response to public pressure in Britain, Coca-Cola ditched the preservative from Diet Coke sold there. No plans are in place to remove it from their other sodas in Britain or here in the U.S.

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