Questions and Answers: Benzene in Today's Global Food Supply

What Is Benzene?

Benzene is a colorless, flammable chemical that can be formed from natural occurrences such as volcanoes and forest fires and also from human-linked sources such as auto exhaust and gasoline vapors; thus, it is ubiquitous in the atmosphere.
 

Why Can Benzene Be Found in Beverages?

Benzoic acid and sodium benzoate (the salt made from benzoic acid) are potential precursors to benzene. “Benzoic acid occurs naturally, notably in cranberries, cinnamon, plums, and currants and has been used to inhibit microbial growth in food and beverage products for many years. Benzoate salt is added to beverages to inhibit the growth of bacteria, yeast and mold. The benzoate salts are particularly well suited for use in carbonated, nonalcoholic, and juice beverages.”[1]

Both benzoic acid and sodium benzoate are food preservatives that are most suitable for foods, fruit juices, and soft drinks that are naturally in an acidic pH range. Under some circumstances, they can be formed into benzene in extremely small amounts when they come into contact with various other ingredients, such as vitamin C. Vitamin C, an antioxidant, is used to protect the taste and quality of many food and beverage products, as well as to supplement nutritional value.

Therefore, benzene is not added to beverages.  Rather, for products that contain benzoic acid or benzoate salt and vitamin C, and under certain conditions such as extended exposure to heat and light, benzene can be unintentionally formed at very low levels (ppb).
 

How Is Benzene Regulated and Monitored?

In the United States, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has been examining and monitoring the presence of benzene in multiple beverages since 1990. Additionally, the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition initiated a study in 2005 of benzene levels that showed the “vast majority of the beverages sampled (including those containing both benzoate salts and ascorbic acid) contained either no detectable benzene or levels well below the 5 ppb” maximum allowed level by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for benzene in drinking water.

Since 2005 soft drink companies have worked with the FDA and other regulatory agencies to reformulate products to reduce the potential for the formation of benzene.  When reformulated products were tested by the FDA, the benzene levels were significantly below 5 ppb.

Similarly, Health Canada has investigated beverages to identify the presence of benzene. The result of the investigation showed that soft drinks and other beverages available for sale in Canada are safe.
 

Putting Benzene Risk into Perspective

While benzene exposure is mostly linked to natural sources (breathing the air), benzene exposure is very low via the consumption of beverages (see chart below). While exposure via beverages remains minute, the FDA in the U.S. is working alongside the Codex Alimentarius and other regulatory bodies across the globe to continue to ensure the safety of food and beverages for everyone.

Source of Exposure Estimated Exposure (μg/day)
Food products 0.2-3.1
Air: Inhalation exposure 220
Cigarette smoking (20 cigarettes) 7,900

Source: Hong Kong Center for Food Safety

 

Additional Resources:

 

[1] Taken in part from Modeling yeast spoilage in cold-filled ready-to-drink beverages with Saccharomyces cerevisiae, Zygosaccharomyces bailii, and Candida lipolytica. Battey AS, Duffy S, Schaffner DW Appl Environ Microbiol. 2002 Apr; 68(4):1901-6.

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