Natural Foods Merchandiser

Data released on benzene in soft drinks

Benzene, a known carcinogen, is present in high levels in five soft drinks tested recently by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The beverages that had more than 5 parts per billion of benzene (the FDA standard for drinking water) included:

  • Safeway Select Diet Orange (levels ranged from 10.7 ppb to 79.2 ppb)
  • Crush Pineapple (9.2 ppb)
  • Aqua Cal Strawberry Flavored Water (9.2 ppb to 23.4 ppb)
  • Crystal Light Sunrise Classic Orange (nondectable levels to 87.9 ppb)
  • Giant Light Cranberry Juice Cocktail (5.4 ppb to 10.7 ppb)

The findings were published as the culmination of a months-long study of more than 100 soft drinks collected from stores in Maryland, Virginia and Michigan, after a private lab alerted the FDA to the possible presence of benzene in soft drinks. The issue was thought to have been resolved in the 1990s, but the lab's results raised suspicions anew and the FDA launched its own investigation.

"These data should not be understood to be a reflection of the distribution of benzene in beverages in the U.S. food supply," FDA officials said in a news release. "The data cover a limited number of products, a limited number of brands and a limited geographic region."

Despite the disclaimer, the FDA concluded: "The results of the survey indicate that the levels of benzene found in soft drinks and other beverages to date do not pose a safety concern for consumers. FDA is taking steps, along with industry, to make sure that benzene formation in beverages is minimized to levels below the drinking water standard of 5 ppb." The agency does not maintain benzene standards for any product other than water.

Benzene is thought to form when two common ingredients, ascorbic acid and sodium benzoate, are both present. FDA noted in its data that Giant Light Cranberry Juice Cocktail added ascorbate only, but explained that it may contain natural benzoate. The FDA also suspects that other factors affect the formation of benzene, such as time at elevated temperatures and amount of light exposure during shipping. That may account for some of the variation seen in the samples tested.

The FDA has contacted the manufacturers whose samples had elevated benzene levels, and they are reformulating their products, agency officials said.

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVII/number 7/p. 12

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