Processed food manufacturers often use additives to preserve flavor and freshness in products that are meant to be stored for long periods. Ascorbic acid, or vitamin C, and sodium benzoate are both preservatives you may find together in soft drinks and canned vegetables, such as olives and capers.
Vitamin C is found mostly in fruits and vegetables. Your body needs vitamin C for connective tissue synthesis and immune system function. It’s also an antioxidant that protects your cells from damage due to free-radical exposure. Ascorbic acid is one form of vitamin C that’s used as a food preservative because its antioxidant properties also protect foods from oxidation when they're exposed to the air.
Sodium benzoate is added to acid foods such as jams, soft drinks, salads, relishes and sauerkraut to prevent spoilage due to bacteria, mold and other microorganisms. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration considers sodium benzoate and benzoic acid to be safe at levels normally consumed by the general public.
Benzene is a cancer-causing chemical that is released from the emissions of cars and trucks and from burning coal and oil. Small amounts of benzene can form in foods that contain both vitamin C and sodium benzoate when they are exposed to heat or light -- or potentially after prolonged storage.
Benzene in Beverages
Information published by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration says the agency detected benzene levels above 5 parts per billion in 10 soft drink and beverage products in 2005. Soft drink manufacturers reformulated their products and follow up samples found benzene levels below 1.5 ppb, which is below the Environmental Protection Agency’s maximum contaminant level of 5 ppb for drinking water.
- U.S. National Library of Medicine: Vitamin C
- “Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry”; Fermented Vegetables Containing Benzoic and Ascorbic Acids as Additives: Benzene Formation During Storage and Impact of Additives on Quality Parameters; F.J. Casado; March 2011
- U.S. Food and Drug Administration Database of Select Committee on GRAS Substances (SCOGS) Reviews: Benzoic Acid