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    Guest Post: A Look Back at the 2006 ‘Benzene in Soda’ Scare You May Have Missed

    Benzene_circleIn March of 2006, the United Kingdom’s Food Standards Agency ordered a recall of four brands of beverages after laboratory tests found excessive levels of benzene, a carcinogen. Attention-grabbing headlines, like that run by the Times of London on the front page of its home news section, announced the recall: “Soft drinks pulled from shelves over cancer fear. ” (1) A textbook example of an alert government regulator, policing the safety of its food system? Well, not exactly.

    The BBC, the national broadcaster, prodded the FSA into action. The media outlet forwarded results from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s 2001-2005 Total Diet Study, an on-going survey of nutrients and contaminants found in the American food supply (2). The FDA’s analysis, publicized earlier that year, had found five commercial beverages tainted with benzene at up to 80 parts per billion (ppb), sixteen times the legal limit for drinking water (5 ppb).

    Amid the media frenzy that followed, both the beverage industry and the FDA downplayed the results, the latter stating benzene in sodas “do not pose a safety concern.” (3) This being America, consumers vented their fury by peppering the industry with lawsuits. In due course, the FDA revealed that follow-up testing of the affected brands found product reengineering had successfully lowered benzene concentrations to below the legal limit. (4,5)

    The benzene formed from chemical reactions involving commonly used preservatives, specifically sodium benzoate and vitamin C (6). The FDA acknowledged knowing about the interacting potential of these ingredients as early as 1990, but not perceiving it as a major public health hazard, never publicized the matter, choosing instead to direct manufacturers to reformulate their products (7). Industry kept silent, for obvious reasons.

    The FDA has never held a particularly spectacular reputation in the court of American public opinion, and at face value its decision in this case can be interpreted as wildly pro-industry. But throwing the agency under a bus is premature. Its rationale is clearer if sodas are considered in the context of all human exposures to benzene.

    For example, existing research suggests that the detected levels of benzene were comparable to or less than concentrations found in other foods. Avoiding soda was therefore unlikely to appreciably reduce the average exposure. American and European food safety agencies have reported detecting benzene at concentrations up to 2100 ppb in foods as diverse as raw eggs, bananas, ground beef, and coleslaw (8). This benzene originates from exposure to the air (contamination rises with exposed surface area), making it reasonable that most foods will contain trace amounts of benzene.

    Moreover, exposure from food is insignificant compared to the major route of exposure: inhalation. The substance is pervasive in the modern environment. As a component of crude oil, benzene is released into the air from gasoline and car exhaust, to say nothing of emissions from its role in cleaning products, and manufacturing emissions (it is involved in everything from plastics to polyester). Benzene is also heavily concentrated in tobacco, so smoking a cigarette provides many, many times the exposure of drinking soda.

    Finally, naturally occurring benzene has been detected in forest fires, volcanic explosions, and underground drinking water supplies (9). In 1990, the makers of Perrier mineral water issued a global recall totaling over 72 million bottles after American labs detected benzene contamination at concentrations of 12.3 to 19.9 parts per billion (10). The contamination was eventually traced to benzene endemic to the Perrier spring that hadn’t been removed during the manufacturing process (11).

    To put all these exposures in context, the FSA estimates that to equal the average individual’s daily exposure to benzene through breathing, an individual would need to consume roughly five gallons of a beverage contaminated at 10 ppb (12). That said, reducing carcinogen exposure wherever possible is a good thing, so many beverage manufacturers have voluntarily reworked their product lines to limit benzoate formation (13).

    The benefit of the FDA publicizing its information in 1990 is hard to see. There is the possible of media spin and misinterpretation, and there doesn’t seem to be a minimal public health gain, at best. Besides, if the FDA called a press conference every single time it detected trace concentrations of foreign substances in food, it would have difficulty notifying the public in a true crisis (like Salmonella in peanut butter).

    In this author’s humble opinion, it seems a waste of time to actively limit benzene exposure from soda, unless you drink quantities sufficient to extinguish forest fires. Drinking a ton of soda is a problem in itself – nevermind the benzene. The take-home message is: don’t worry about benzene in sodas – many brands no longer contain detectable levels. Instead, eat your (dark leafy green) vegetables, go for a run, quit smoking. There’s a million other things you can do to better improve your health than deconstruct food labels hunting for benzene and vitamin C hunting for a phantom threat that may not even be there.

    For those interested in limiting all benzene exposure, however miniscule: avoid beverages containing both ascorbic acid (vitamin C) and benzoate in the form of sodium benzoate, potassium benzoate, or calcium benzoate. These ingredients can be listed with their food additive codes, E300 (vitamin C), E211 (sodium benzoate), E212 (potassium benzoate), and E213 (calcium benzoate). Also, presence of sugar seems to help inhibit benzene development (some of the tainted products were citrus drinks with benzoate preservatives).


    1. Elliott V. “Soft drinks pulled from shelves over cancer fear”. The Times (London). April 1st, 2006.
    2. British Broadcasting Corporation. “Cancer chemical found in Drinks”. BBC News Online. March 1st, 2006. Available here
    3. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. “Benzene in Soft Drinks”. April 13th, 2006. Available here
    4. Consumers Union. “Benzene in Soft Drinks: Lawsuits highlight possible presence of carcinogen in beverages”. Consumer Reports. August 2006. Available here
    5. U.S. Food and Drug Adminstration. “Data on Benzene in Soft Drinks and Other Beverages”. 2009. Available here
    6. Gardner LK. “Benzene Production From Decarboxylation of Benzoic Acid in the Presence of Ascorbic Acid and a Transition-Metal Catalyst”. Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry. 1993;41:693-695.
    7. Goldstein D. “Benzene showing up in sodas; The FDA thought soft-drink companies had made the problem go away 16 years ago. Now the carcinogen has returned. Don’t fret, the agency and industry say.” The Philadelphia Inquirer. March 4, 2006:A02.
    8. Smith B, Cadby P, DiNovi M, Setzer RW. “Application of the Margin of Exposure (MoE) approach to substances in food that are genotoxic and carcinogenic Example: Benzene, CAS: 71-43-2.” Food and Chemical Toxicology. 2010;48:S49-56.
    9. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. “ToxFAQs for Benzene”. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. February 18, 2010. Available here
    10. James G. “Perrier Recalls Its Water in U.S. After Benzene Is Found in Bottles”. The New York Times. February 10, 1990:Page 1.
    11. New York Times Financial Desk. “Perrier Says Employees Failed to Change Filters”. The New York Times. February 15, 1990:D12.
    12. Food Standards Agency. “Survey of benzene levels in soft drinks”. March 31, 2006. Available here
    13. Associated Press. “Coca-Cola settles lawsuits over benzene”. MSNBC. May 14, 2007. Available here

    Yuuki Nakayachi is a native of the Philadelphia suburbs and a recent graduate of New York University’s graduate clinical nutrition program. He is currently studying for credentialing exams that will let him put more fancy letters after his name. He welcomes feedback at y.nakayachi@gmail.com.


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