Are soft drinks a dangerous source of benzene exposure? Nutrition Diva takes a closer look.
Q. "I recently read that the preservatve sodium benzoate reacts with vitamin C to produce benzene and that soft drinks (which contain both) may contain dangerous amounts of benzene. Is this really something to worry about or just another scary myth?"
A. Like many urban legends, this one contains a mixture of truth and hyperbole. It's absolutely true that sodium benzoate, a preservative that's widely used and considered safe, reacts with ascorbic acid, or vitamin C, to produce the highly toxic compound benzene. And it's also true that many soft drinks contain both ingredients. However, federal testing of soft drinks found the levels of benzene to be well below the threshold of safety.
Although any amount of benzene in a soda sounds a little scary, it's important to put these things into perspective.
When it comes to avoiding benzene, soft drinks aren't your biggest worry. Inhalation of fumes from gasoline, tobacco or wood smoke, and occupational exposure are the primary culprits. Contamination of soil or ground water around industrial plants is also a concern - something that the EPA keeps a close eye on.
See also: Is Your Drinking Water Safe?
And when it comes to reasons to limit your consumption of soft drinks, I think the harmful effects of the sugar and/or artificial sweeteners are probably more of a threat than a tiny amount of benzene.