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Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Sodium Benzoate - What is it?

See what happens when you start reading labels?

I found out that my soy sauce had something called sodium benzoate in it. I didn't really know what that was, or if it was something to be avoided, so I contacted my wise old friend, Mr. Wikipedia. His opinion is usually pretty balanced, even if he isn't respected in the classroom.

What is it?

Well, first of all, sodium benzoate is a preservative, that's why it's in there. In it's natural form, it's benzoic acid and can be found in many fruits. To be used in most packaged foods, it's neutralized with sodium hydroxide to make it more dissolvable, and it becomes sodium benzoate.

It's been found to be safe at levels of 647-825mg/kg per day. The FDA limits it's concentration in food to 0.1% by weight. So, just make sure you're only getting 647-825mg per kg of body weight each day and you should be fine.... but you may get a headache from all the calculating.

What's it in, besides soy sauce?

Usually, sodium benzoate is found in acidic food products such as salad dressings, carbonated beverages, jams, jellies and juices.

It's also found in fireworks and as fuel in whistle mix. Just so you know.

*Update - two different people asked me what whistle mix was, and I honestly wasn't sure so I looked it up. It's a pyrotechnic powder that makes a whistling sound when it's packed into a tube and ignited. Think bottle rockets.

So, is it bad for me, and what's it gonna do?

There are two concerns with sodium benzoate. When this chemical and ascorbic acid are mixed, they form benzene, a known carcinogen. Many soft drinks contain both ingredients, but the levels at which benzene is formed are very low. Therefore, one soda will not give you cancer, but a buildup over time is not a good idea. I know that ascorbic acid is a common food ingredient, so it's a pretty sure bet that any sodium benzoate I'm taking in is being combined with ascorbic acid to form benzene.

The other concern is that sodium benzoate, when combined with certain artificial colors can trigger hyperactivity. There is a lack of conclusive evidence on this one, though. I do know that food dyes have long been suspected to cause hyperactivity on their own.

What's the verdict? Should I throw my soy sauce away?

While I don't put sodium benzoate on the level of, say hydrogenated oils or refined sugar, I definitely say it's something to be cautious about. I won't be throwing out my soy sauce, but next time I buy, I'm going to check a few brands and see if I can find one that doesn't include any potential carcinogens. With cancer rates rising like they are today, I think it is wise to be careful when possible.

Carbonated sodas are never good for you. I just have more evidence for that now.

Oh, and don't eat any fireworks or whistle mix fuel, either.

Have you found any weird ingredients on your labels? I bet you have, if you've been looking!


  1. I noticed recently on my bottled lemon juice that it has sodium benzoate in it and got freaked out and started juicing whole lemons for my hot tea. Then I realized how hard and time consuming it is to juice my own lemons (this real food thing is hard, darn it all) and went guiltily back to using the bottled. But I don't use it everyday, just a tablespoon in my hot tea on the weekends. Sigh.

  2. Oh yes, all kinds of interesting stuff on those labels!! I worry about sodium benzoate because of one of the reasons you listed; behavioral problems in some kids (like mine, for example). I didn't even know about it being a carcinogen. Sheesh.

    Also, what the heck is whistle mix??

  3. Betsy - It sure would be nice if we could always eliminate all compromise foods and only eat "perfect ones", wouldn't it? But then again, we'd all go bankrupt and we'd be so busy we wouldn't have time to enjoy it! I'm sure you'll be fine. :)

    Jen - I looked up the definition of whistle mix, because you're not the first to ask that! It's in an update in the post up there! (Whistle mix is another ingredient used to make fireworks whistle.)

  4. Betsy...I started to use lemon essential oil from Young Living (a MLM company) or Rocky Mountain oils (not an MLM) in my tea. Saves time and money...and the health benefits of the pure essential oil are amazing. A drop or 2 will do ya and only takes mere seconds.

  5. Thanks, Betsy! You could also keep some lemons on hand for tea, too!

  6. Hey Sarah!! Dennis just told me about your blog! It's great!! I have some wonderful healthy low fat, whole food recipes that John and I have instituted and are delish but I can't find them on the blog!!