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The Choice of a New Generation
FDA Report: Benzene “Dangerously Delicious”

by Kit Smith

On March 29th it was widely reported that the Food and Drug Administration had tested a number of soft drinks for benzene. “Nope, no benzene here,” the FDA said, “drink up!”  Then last week, the FDA revealed that a “very, very few samples” had slightly elevated levels of benzene. Just a skosh here and there, nothing to be concerned about. “Chug-a-lug!” According the Environmental Working Group (EWG), however, FDA test results show that 19 out of 24 diet soda samples tested from 1995 to 2001 were contaminated with benzene levels as high as four times those considered safe in tap water. It almost seems as though the FDA was being less than forthcoming in informing the public. Weird, right?

The EWG is at the forefront of this controversy. The homepage of their website contains the following as an introduction to their petition: “Back in 1990, the FDA trusted the soft drink industry to stop using a combination of ingredients that can form the potent carcinogen benzene.”  The combination of concern is the preservative sodium benzoate and ascorbic acid (vitamin C).  Though ascorbic acid occurs naturally in some soft drinks, it became more common in the early 1990s when soft drink makers began adding vitamin C to everything in an attempt to convince parents that flavored corn syrup had nutritional value.

So what’s the FDA say now? What do you think? Laura Tarantino, the agency’s director of food additive safety, said in an interview last Wednesday, “there is not a safety concern, not a public health concern...what we need to do is understand how benzene forms and to ensure the industry is doing everything to avoid those circumstances.” Ahh, ya lost me there, Laura. I don’t actually care how the bullets are manufactured; I only care that they’re lodged in my chest.

Kevin Keane, spokesperson for the American Beverage Association group, makes the argument that the amount of soft drinks people consume is far less than the amount of water they are “exposed to.” This is completely true: I have never bathed in Pepsi. But the ABA’s own info contradicts this assertion. According to their website, the ABA’s “members are producers, marketers and distributors of virtually every non-alcoholic refreshment beverage you can name.” Their website also states that in 2004 the U.S. non-alcoholic refreshment market totaled 14 billion 192-ounce cases. Carbonated soft drinks made up 73.1% ...and bottled water accounted for 13.2%.

Dr. Ruth Kava of the American Council on Science and Health (a consumer education consortium) weighs in with this statement: “Benzene is indeed a human carcinogen at high levels; people who are exposed to it at high concentrations in workplace air have an increased risk of cancer. But... people would need to drink more than twenty quarts of a beverage with ten ppb of benzene to equal the amount one would breathe from city air in one day.” To sum up: “Do the Dew!”

Visiting Dr. Kava’s website, the very first thing on her list of clickables is a letter published in Nature magazine titled “Industry Funding Doesn’t Influence Our Reports.” Think they doth protest too much? Of course they do: The ACSH was funded by four and a half pages worth of corporate sponsors, including the NutraSweet Company, the Sugar Association, PepsiCo, and Coca-Cola Foods. These names come from the ACSH’s 1991 annual report—ACSH stopped disclosing corporate donors in the early ‘90s.

Wouldn’t it be nice just once to have a truly unbiased source providing us good news?  The FDA still hasn’t released the benzene data to the public. Robert E. Brackett, director of the agency’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, says the FDA is continuing the tests and will release results “when we have a more complete understanding of the current marketplace.” Excuse him? The “current marketplace” is being poisoned by their “refreshment beverages.” As the director of the Center for Food Safety, what more does he need to understand?

“To release all the data now could be confusing,” Laura Tarantino says, echoing the White House mantra that excessive information only serves to cloud issues. “It’s not only not good for companies; it’s not particularly good for consumers. It doesn’t give them any useful information. One of the misperceptions is that anytime you see ascorbic acid and benzoate, you’re going to automatically have high levels of benzene, and that just isn’t so.” This has some truthiness. Heat, light, pH, differing amounts of ascorbic acid and benzoate, even shelf life can all affect whether and how much benzene will form.

In fairness, all the arguments presented about the probable safety of soft drinks are scientifically legitimate. They do not, however provide real answers, nor are they from impartial sources. The fact of so many unrelated arguments is suspicious as well—the industry equivalent of the double lie. You know, “I can’t come to your wedding because my car is broken and—In case you were going to offer me a ride or something—turns out it’s the same day as my grandmother’s funeral.”

Basically, there are two opposing sides making their case without addressing the chemistry of sodium benzoate and ascorbic acid. But this chemistry is exactly the core of the problem. Whether holding soft drinks to a different standard than water is legitimate or not depends on the carcinogenic mechanism of benzene. Whether ascorbic acid and benzoate will produce benzene is a not a question the average citizen can answer. Gee, wouldn’t it be great if we had some sort of federal organization made up of scientist and doctors who could test our food—and drugs—and see if they’re safe?

Luckily, there’s Germany’s Bundesinstitut fur Risikobewertung (BfR--Federal Institute for Risk Evaluation). Last December, the BfR released a comprehensive, referenced six-page document which is available in English, “Indications of the Possible Formation of Benzene from Benzoic Acid in Foods.” The report states that intake of benzene from inhalation and drinking water is typically some hundred micrograms per person per day (A UK report found adult inhalation levels between 75 and 522 micrograms per day). Benzene levels in cola beverages ranged from 1 to 138 micrograms of benzene per kilogram of soda. Other beverages were much lower, typically under 1 microgram per kilogram.

Let’s do the math: The recommended 8 oz serving equates to 240 milliliters; taking the weight of water as a rough estimate gives a weight of 240 grams, which equates to 0.240 kilograms of soda. Multiplying this by the maximum benzene content of 138 micrograms works up to a potential 33 micrograms of benzene per 8 oz serving of cola. Not insignificant, especially when you acknowledge that the last time an American drank just 8 ounces of cola, Buddy Holly was still making records. Also worth considering are indications that up to 95% of oral doses of benzene are absorbed, versus only 80% of inhaled doses.

The BfR’s final conclusion was that there is no sure way of determining the safety of many soft drinks: “Whether and to what extent benzene is formed in (foods with benzoate and ascorbic acid) cannot be reliably assessed on the basis of the data available,” they said, adding that “it is not possible to assess whether an amount of benzene is formed in soft drinks that makes a significant contribution to the total benzene intake of man and whether this constitutes a health risk.”

So they don’t know either. But at least they are not treating consumers as if we are all drooling idiots born solely to spend and devour. They provide enough data in their report for the consumer to make an educated choice.

This isn’t the first time diet sodas have faced safety scrutiny. In 1996 it was disclosed that benzaldehyde—a known mutagen whose carcinogenic properties have yet to be determined—is formed from aspartame, ascorbic acid and a transition metal catalyst. It was determined that EDTA would prevent the formation of benzaldehyde, yet I see that no EDTA has been added to my Diet Cherry Vanilla Coke. Which I am now pouring down the sink.

Naw, not for real. Soda is like candy, or for that matter, cigarettes—fine in small amounts. Regular soda contains the equivalent of seven teaspoons of sugar; it is candy. And apparently diet soda has indeterminate amounts of multiple toxins; it’s poison. As consumers, we should not have to look to organizations in other countries for comprehensive information allowing us to make intelligent and safe food choices. Food safety should not be yet another arena for coy manipulation and sound bites. The FDA is so thoroughly compromised by industry at this point that its very reassurances are seen by some as cause for alarm, and there’s no reason to hope for improvement, especially when it withholds information that affects public health because it might also affect Coca-Cola’s profit margin.



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