Man o’ man is reading about food corporations a major buzzkill. I would so much prefer to write about the pleasure of 40 clove chicken, but sometimes it’s best to write about the bad so that you know how to enjoy the good.
At any rate, many people have asked about Benzene and soda. Before I go into the details, here are the first things you need to know:
- In our drinking water, the EPA states that Benzene in our drinking water should not exceed 5 parts per billion.
- If the levels of benzene exceed 5 ppb, the applicable water company has to notify the public via newspapers, radio, TV and other means. Additional actions, such as providing alternative drinking water supplies, may be required to prevent serious risks to public health. (from the previous link)
So, according to the standards as set by our own Government, Benzene in drinking water is a fairly big deal. (For comparison, the European Union has a stricter requirement, allowing only 1 part per billion in their drinking water, but the World Health Organization allows for 10 parts per billion).
This sets the table up for everything else.
What is Benzene? According to that great information starting point, Wikipedia, Benzene is an organic chemical compound that is a colorless and flammable liquid. The US Department of Health and Human Services classifies benzene as a human carcinogen. Long-term exposure to high levels of benzene in the air can cause leukemia. It can also damage the bone marrow and can cause a decrease in red blood cells, leading to anemia. It can also cause excessive bleeding and depress the immune system.
In short, Benzene is a hard-core substance that isn’t to be trifled with.
Why is benzene being put into sodas? The short answer is that it isn’t. Rather, two ingredients (ascorbic acid and sodium benzoate) in some sodas can react in such a way that creates benzene.
Now before you start thinking that this might be something that soda companies might not have known about until recently, you should review a bit of history.
In 1990, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) learned that certain soft drinks marketed to children contain two ingredients that can mix in the soda to form the toxic carcinogen benzene. The Agency didn’t tell the public, but instead merely asked companies to voluntarily change their formulas to eliminate the problem.
What that means is that the FDA knew this was a problem 16 years ago. They asked soda companies to take care of the problem themselves.
The soda companies in turn, did little or nothing.
How much of a risk is in drinking soda? That’s determined by the soda you drink and how often you drink it. If you drink one glass of coke ever month, you’ll probably have no worries.
If you have soda on a daily basis… your risk increases a great amount.
What kind of sodas have high benzene levels? The Food and Drug Administration played coy with their testing by not telling any names (using the “we’re still looking into the matter” defense).
However, remember those drinking water numbers above? Any amount of drinking water with more than 5 parts per billion gets a call to the local media and a health alert is given. Using that as a basis:
- Coca-Cola’s Lilt pineapple and grapefruit crush – 7 parts per billion
- Diet Orange Crush – 25 parts per billion
What’s this I hear about heat, light, and how they react with soda? This should be the prototypical example of a bad thing made much worse. The reaction between ascorbic acid and sodium benzoate is exacerbated when heat and/or light are thrown into the equation.
Pepsi’s Diet Slice measured at 1 parts per billion off the shelf but 41.5 parts per billion after exposure to heat and light (as reported at any of the docs found here).
These numbers move beyond “slight anomaly” and move directly into “consumer danger”.
What should we do? First and foremost, don’t panic. Many sodas are apparently having no problems whatsoever. Also, a sense of perspective is necessary. The 5 parts per billion limitation of benzene for our drinking water has to take into account the fact that we not only drink water, but we use it to cook, wash our clothes, and bathe. Soda, hopefully, is less pervasive in our lives.
Read the label of any soda you wish to purchase. Avoid or limit the consumption of products that contain both ascorbic acid and sodium benzoate.
Finally, hold the soda companies accountable. If companies look to spin the issue or provide less than straightforward information surrounding this issue, look for alternatives to their products.
So what’s next? Everyone is testing their products currently, and Major Soda Companies (Coke, Pepsi, Cadburry-Schweppes) are looking for both PR and political solutions. Many numbers that have been reported have had no brands associated with them yet. But the numbers that are coming out are unsettling:
Of the 60 or so varieties of sodas, sport drinks, juice drinks and bottled waters that the FDA has tested so far, the benzene levels have ranged from 2 and 3 parts per billion to more than 20 parts per billion. One cola has tested at 138 ppb.
Meanwhile, the soda companies have let their Lobbying firm speak for them, rather than speaking for themselves. The Kansas City Star reports that Kevin Keane, a spokesman for the American Beverage Association said . “People shouldn’t overreact, It’s a very small number of products and not major brands.ˮ
Which would be all well and nice if the actual consumers of the products knew which sodas are at risk. For Keane to make such a statement is essentially him saying “Trust us”.
This, from the same industry who knew about this problem in the first place and did nothing about it.