Benzoates are a widely used additive in food and beverage products, as well as medicine and nutritional supplements. They are used as preservatives.
Benzoates work by preventing the growth and survival of microorganisms that cause food spoilage, thereby extending the shelf life of the product containing them.
Two benzoate salts are commonly used in products, namely Sodium Benzoate (E211) and Potassium Benzoate (E212).
Tip: Sometimes the names of the preservatives are given on the ingredient list, otherwise they are simply listed as “preservatives” with the E number given in brackets.
Potential Hazards of Benzoates
Benzoates are used in food products because they have been “generally recognised as safe”. However, many additives that are now banned had at one point been recognised as safe.
In the case of benzoates, several studies have found that there are potential side effects which warrant consideration.
It is important to note that the Acceptable Daily Intake (ADI) for benzoic acid and benzoate salts established by Food and Agriculture Organization/ World Health Organization (FAO/WHO) Expert Committee on Food Additives is 0 to 5 mg per body weight.
While the ADI is unlikely to be exceeded for average consumers, high daily consumers of soda and juices, which contain high amounts of benzoates, may exceed the ADI.
- Hyperactive behaviours
As we explained in our article, Sodium benzoate in combination with artificial food coloring can increase hyperactivity in young children. In a pilot study, a higher intake of beverages containing sodium benzoate was associated with more symptoms of ADHD in college students (ref).
- Formation of benzene (a potential carcinogen)
When combined with vitamin C, sodium benzoate can also be converted into a benzene, a compound that may be associated with cancer development.
In 2007, many soft drink companies were faced with lawsuits as their drinks contained benzoate-vitamin C combination. A reformulation of drinks that excluded the use of vitamin C was necessary.
A. Avoid or minimise your intake of foods containing added benzoates. Check the labels of your food carefully and look out for E211 and E212 on the ingredient list.
B. Avoid products that contain the above especially if combined with a source of vitamin C or ascorbic acid.
C. Avoid products that contain benzoates in combination with artificial food colourants.
About the Author
Veeraj Goyaram, MSc (Med) Exer. Sci (UCT) cum laude, BSc (Hons) Biology.
Veeraj is passionate about researching and developing nutritional products for optimal health and performance, with a particular interest in sports, child and diabetic nutrition products. As a former research student at the University of Cape Town, Veeraj examined the effect of exercise and nutrition on the function of genes in muscle. His research was published in renowned scientific journals and medical textbooks on Diabetes and Exercise (PubMed listing). Veeraj keeps healthy by regularly lifting weights and taking daily walks.