Sodium benzoate (also known as E211) is a chemical preservative used to help inhibit the growth of bacteria and fungus in acidic products. It is linked to aging and cancer and is widely used in foods, beverages, cosmetic, dental care products, and pharmaceuticals that contain:
- Vinegar (salad dressings, pickled foods)
- Carbonic acid (carbonated drinks)
- Citric acid (jams, fruit juices, cough syrups, baby wipes, liquid hand soaps)
- Alcohol (alcohol-based mouthwash)
- Other high acids (soy sauce, Chinese food sauces)
Manufactured from Crude Oil
Sodium benzoate is the sodium salt of benzoic acid. This crystalline powder is produced by reacting sodium hydroxide (lye) with benzoic acid. Benzoic acid is commercially manufactured by reacting toluene with oxygen. Toluene is:
- Related to benzene (a carcinogenic substance).
- Found in crude oil and used to make gasoline.
- Also known as methylbenzene or phenylmethane.
Due to the unpleasant aftertaste of sodium benzoate and not so much for toxicity, sodium benzoate concentration is limited by the FDA in the U.S. and should not exceed 0.1% by weight. Potassium benzoate, the potassium salt of benzoic acid, is an alternative preservative to sodium benzoate. When lower sodium content is required, potassium benzoate is used in place of sodium benzoate.
Natural Sources of Benzoic Acid
If you’ve ever had a bladder infection and were told to drink cranberry juice, here’s why. Benzoic acid has antifungal properties and is produced by many plants. High concentrations of benzoic acid are found in cranberries and are also found naturally in:
- Greengage plums
- Ripe cloves
Sodium benzoate is not known to be carcinogenic on its own. However, there have been concerns by the FDA that when both vitamin C (ascorbic acid) and sodium benzoate are mixed, they form benzene, a known human carcinogen. Benzene is also formed when potassium benzoate is combined with vitamin C. Shelf life and exposure to high temperature or light affect the rate that benzene is formed.
“Free Radicals” Effect on Aging
In May 2007, the professor of molecular biology and biotechnology at the University of Sheffield and an expert on aging, Professor Peter Piper, spoke out linking benzoates to cell damage. The preservative caused an increased production of oxygen radicals, or “free radicals”, which several studies have linked to serious diseases and to the general aging process.
According to Professor Piper’s research which he published in 1999, benzoates attack the cells’ mitochondria. Mitochondria are the body’s “cellular power plants”. They generate most of the cell’s supply of energy and their ability to operate efficiently is vital to good health.
Benzoates damage the mitochondria and the DNA within these “power stations”, whereby, mitochondria lose their ability to fully convert oxygen to energy. As a result, small amounts of this oxygen escape and create highly reactive oxygen radicals.
Most of the free radicals can be repaired with reasonable efficiency (antioxidants can limit damage by passivating oxygen radicals), but when a high level accumulate in the cells, the consequences can be dangerous. The cells start to malfunction which can totally inactivate DNA or cause DNA mutations (alterations).
Oxygen radicals have been associated with several diseases caused by the accumulation of cell changes, such as liver cirrhosis (liver cell death), Parkinson’s disease (neuronal cell death), as well as the progressive deterioration of general health that occurs in old age, including gray hair.
Other Adverse Effects
Sodium benzoate may increase sensitivities and allergic reactions in people with asthma and recurrent urticaria (hives).
Fit Tip: Many additives are relatively new. Read product labels and be aware of preservatives in the products you eat, drink or rub into your skin. Avoid them as much as possible since their long-term impact cannot be known with 100% certainty. In the meantime, eat a diet rich in antioxidants to combat the aging process.