Benzene in Beverages

By Meadows, Michelle | FDA Consumer, September-October 2006 | Go to article overview

Benzene in Beverages


Meadows, Michelle, FDA Consumer


The Food and Drug Administration is working with the beverage industry to ensure that benzene levels in soft drinks and other beverages are as low as possible. Benzene is a chemical used in dyes and detergents, and in some plastics. It's also released into the air from automobile emissions and results from burning coal and oil. Benzene may be produced in soft drinks and other beverages with certain ingredient combinations. High levels of benzene in workplace air have caused cancer in workers.

The FDA has no regulatory limits for benzene in beverages other than bottled water. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has established a maximum contaminant level for benzene of 5 parts per billion (ppb) in drinking water. The FDA has adopted this level for bottled water as a quality standard. Based on results from a recent survey of soft drinks and other beverages conducted by the FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition (CFSAN), most beverage samples analyzed contained either no detectable benzene or levels below the 5 ppb limit for drinking water, and do not suggest a safety concern, says Judith Kidwell, a consumer safety officer in the CFSAN's Office of Food Additive Safety.

How Benzene May Form in Soft Drinks

In 1990, the FDA learned that benzene was present in some soft drinks. The FDA and industry initiated research and discovered that exposure to heat and light can stimulate the formation of low levels of benzene in some beverages that contain both benzoate salts, such as sodium benzoate or potassium benzoate, and vitamin C (ascorbic acid).

Sodium benzoate or potassium benzoate maybe added to beverages to prevent the growth of bacteria, yeasts, and molds. Benzoate salts also are naturally present in some fruits and their juices, such as cranberries. Vitamin C may be naturally present in beverages or added to prevent spoilage or to provide additional nutrients.

"The presence of benzoates and vitamin C as ingredients in a product doesn't mean that elevated levels of benzene have formed or will form," Kidwell says.

A Recent Survey

In November 2005, the FDA received private laboratory results reporting low levels of benzene in a small number of soft drinks that contain benzoate preservatives and vitamin C. In response to these findings, the FDA began collecting and analyzing samples of beverages with a focus on products that contain both benzoate and vitamin C. …

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