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Benzene in soft drinks: Lawsuits highlight possible presence of carcinogen in beverages

Benzene in soft drinks
Lawsuits highlight possible presence of carcinogen in beverages
From Consumer Reports August 2006

The Coca-Cola Co. was sued on Friday by parents who say they want to eliminate soft drink ingredients that can form benzene, a potent carcinogen.
Ray Crockett, a Coca-Cola spokesman, said “Our top priority is always to ensure the quality and safety of our products through rigorous food safety procedures.” He said that “lawyers have been filing lawsuits concerning benzene in a number of states despite the Food and Drug Administration’s repeated statements that it has found no public health risks.”
Friday’s suit was filed over Vault Zero, a Coke energy soda. “Vault Zero is safe, there is no basis for the lawsuit,” Crockett said.
Also on Friday, a lawsuit over benzene was settled involving two smaller companies, Atlanta-based Zone Brands Inc. and Preston, Wash.-based Talking Rain Beverage Co., according to news reports. The companies reportedly denied that their products caused harm, but they had already agreed to change their ingredients.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced in May 2006 that it found benzene in some samples of five beverages at levels far higher than the 5 parts per billion (ppb) that federal regulations allow in bottled or tap water. (There is currently no standard for benzene in soft drinks.)
Benzene can form in beverages containing benzoate salts (anti­microbials) and either vitamin C (ascorbic acid) or erythorbic acid, a related substance, if certain minerals are present. Heat or light during shipping or storage can increase the amount of benzene formed.
What’s in stores. The five beverages–AquaCal strawberry-flavored water, Crush Pineapple soda, Crystal Light Sunrise Classic Orange drink, Giant Light Cranberry Juice Cocktail, and Safeway Select Diet Orange soda–had not been pulled from store shelves by the manufacturers or the FDA, says Laura Tarantino, director of the agency’s office of food-additive safety. “The levels found do not pose an acute health hazard,” she says. All five have been reformulated or are being changed to minimize their benzene content, the agency says. It will continue to monitor the market.
The FDA learned from the beverage industry itself in 1990 that benzene can form in soft drinks. Since then, monitoring has occasionally turned up high levels, but the agency has never set a limit. “We haven’t seen a need,” says Judy Kidwell, an FDA consumer-safety officer. She added that the highest exposure to benzene is from breathing auto emissions.
Since the agency didn’t treat the soft-drink finding as a public-health issue, neither did the American Beverage Association, says Mike Redman, its vice president of scientific, technical, and regulatory affairs. The group, which represents U.S. soft drink makers and distributors, finally issued guidelines on mitigating benzene in May.
What we found. We tested 14 drinks containing both vitamin C and sodium benzoate, bought in stores around New York from March to May 2006, and found at least 2 ppb of benzene in some samples of Fanta Pineapple soda, Kool-Aid Jammers Orange juice drink (the maker recently eliminated sodium benzoate), and Sunkist Grape and Orange sodas. Highest was one of three samples of Fanta Pineapple soda, at 6 ppb. For all the products, we tested at least three samples using a method designed to avoid overestimating benzene.
Next, to mimic conditions that can boost benzene formation, we stored three to five samples of each of the 11 tested beverages that don’t need refrigeration under fluorescent light in a 90° F chamber for three to four weeks. We found levels ranging from 7 to 30 ppb in some samples of four products: Crystal Light Sunrise Classic Orange, Fanta Orange and Pineapple sodas, and Sunkist Orange soda.
Consumers Union, the nonprofit publisher of Consumer Reports, thinks the FDA should restrict benzene in all beverages to the limit set for drinking water and require manufacturers to take steps to prevent benzene formation by changing the products’ formulation or manufacturing process.
What you can do. Experts we consulted agree that ingesting benzene at the levels the FDA found typically would not present an acute health risk. But because any exposure to a known carcinogen carries some risk, it makes sense to take precautions:

  • Read ingredient labels. Beverages that combine benzoate salts (listed as sodium benzoate or potassium benzoate) with vitamin C (ascorbic acid) can set the stage for benzene formation. You may want to leave those on the shelf.
  • If you do buy beverages with that combination of ingredients, store them in a cool place and out of direct light.