Potassium & Sodium Benzoate

At Spud, we are trying to bridge the knowledge gap between us and our food. These blog posts are written to educate you on the harmful effects of these ingredients, provide an explanation as to why we don’t carry them, and inform you on how these ingredients can be avoided.

What is it?

Picture benzoic acid, a natural chemical present in various raw foods and spices, as a Dr. Jekyll-like character. When found in trace amounts in natural foods, it poses you no threat. However, when we chemically synthesize benzoic acid into the manufacturing preservatives known as potassium benzoate and sodium benzoate, the harmless nature of benzoic acid fades away and is replaced by carcinogenic chemicals that cause leukemia and other blood cancers.

Despite this, both the FDA and the Canadian Health Protection Branch have deemed these ingredients ‘safe’ when consumed in low amounts. At least you know you won’t see either of these villainous science experiments in anything at Spus

What is it used for?

Sodium and Potassium Benzoate are used as preserving agents to prevent mold in products and extend shelf life. Products that commonly carry these ingredients include:

  • Acidic foods like apple cider, pickles, salad dressings, syrups, jams, olives, processed fruit juices, and soft drinks (Dr. Pepper, Sunkist Orange, Mountain Dew).
  • Health and beauty products like mouthwash, shampoo, body lotions, and deodorants.
  • Over-the-counter prescription drugs, like pills, cough syrups, and topical medications.

processed salad dressing

Why do you want to avoid it?

When potassium or sodium benzoate is mixed with citric acid or vitamin C, these ingredients react by forming a harmful new chemical called benzene.  Benzene is a carcinogen associated with leukemia and other blood cancers.

This part is important: you need to be particularly concerned about the presence of benzene in soft drinks. In a soft drink, the benzene content increases in correlation with shelf life, light exposure, and heat. And because there is typically no regulation that monitors these elements, there is no way to know where the benzene levels are at once you crack open that can.

The US government placed a ban on benzene levels in drinking water, but have made an exception for soft drinks. This means that not only is benzene allowed to be on the ingredients list, but also that the levels continue to increase, unregulated while the product sits on the shelf .

Additionally, a lab study, where scientists evaluated the impact of sodium benzoate in cultured human cells, found that the chemical significantly increased damage to DNA (which triggers cell mutation and cancer) when it was added to the cells in various concentrations.

Product Labeling

Sodium and potassium benzoate go by several other aliases, including benzoic acid, benzene, benzoate, E211, or E212. Be especially mindful if you see citric acid or vitamin C accompanying any of these ingredients, because that means that the product contains benzene. Choosing fresh groceries is the easiest way to avoid these ingredients, and if you’re skeptical of a certain product, best to just stick it back on the shelf and choose something you can feel good about.

It’s daunting to flip over the package and skim through a list of fifty ingredients that you’ve never heard of, so let’s change that. Let’s raise the bar on transparency, and become active ambassadors of our own health.

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