The last has not been heard on the safety of benzoic and ascorbic acids as ingredients in soft drinks. A Lagos High Court in a recent judgement directed the National Agency for Food Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC) to mandate the Nigeria Bottling Company (NBC) to include a warning on its bottles of Fanta and Sprite that its contents cannot be taken with Vitamin C as same become poisonous if taken with Vitamin C.
This order was premised on the fact that the products contain the preservative, benzoic acid. However, the NBC has since appealed this order. However, the Lagos High Court dismissed all claims against NBC and held that the company had not breached its duty of care to consumers and that there was no proven case of negligence against it.
Meanwhile, several studies including the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) of the World Health Organisation (WHO) have confirmed that soft drinks containing a mixture of the salt of benzoic acid, sodium benzoate and vitamin C can cause cancer and other chronic conditions.
According to IARC, when sodium benzoate is combined with Vitamin C (as in some soft drinks and other beverages), and exposed to elevated temperatures or light, the IARC Group 1 cancer-causing chemical, benzene, may form.
But the NBC, yesterday, in a statement signed by the management, allayed concerns over benzoic acid in soft drinks. It noted: "Given the fact that the benzoic and ascorbic acid levels in Fanta as well as the benzoic acid level in Sprite produced and sold by NBC in Nigeria are in compliance with the levels approved by all relevant national regulators and the international level set by Codex, there is no truth in the report that these products would become poisonous if consumed alongside Vitamin C.
"The wrong perception emanating from the media reports that our Fanta and Sprite beverages which are fully compliant with all national and international food quality and safety standards are unsafe, simply because their levels of Benzoic acid were not within the United Kingdom (U.K.) standards, is not only unfounded but also undermines the entire food and beverage industry in Nigeria which is regulated by the same ingredient levels approved by NAFDAC and other regulatory bodies for the country.
"NBC hereby assures our consumers and members of the public of our unwavering commitment to product quality, safety and customer satisfaction."
The Codex Alimentarius or "Food Code" was established by the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) and the World Health Organization (WHO) in 1963 to develop harmonised international food standards, which protect consumer health and promote fair practices in food trade.
According to Codex, signs of benzene toxicity are nausea, vomiting and abdominal pain. Lethality (for both inhaled and ingested benzene) has been attributed to respiratory arrest, central nervous system depression, or suspected cardiac collapse
Benzoic acid and benzoates are common additives to food, drinks and other products. They are useful chemicals in manufactured products because they kill or inhibit both bacteria and fungi and can act as preservatives. In general, the chemicals are considered to be safe when they are used in small quantities. However, there are some situations in which they may be harmful, however.
Benzoates are derived from benzoic acid and are more commonly used as food preservatives than the acid. Some people develop allergy-like symptoms when they are exposed to sodium benzoate. When the chemical reacts with vitamin C (ascorbic acid) in drinks under certain conditions, benzene may be produced. Benzene is a carcinogen. A carcinogen is a substance that is capable of causing cancer.
According to IARC, human exposure to benzene has been associated with a range of acute and long-term adverse health effects and diseases, including cancer and aplastic anaemia. It noted: "Benzene causes acute myeloid leukaemia (acute non-lymphocytic leukaemia), and there is limited evidence that benzene may also cause acute and chronic lymphocytic leukaemia, non-Hodgkin's lymphoma and multiple myeloma."
The NBC further explained: "Whilst we do not wish to delve into the details of the case or the merits of the court order by this medium, we find it imperative in the interest of consumers and members of the public to make the following clarifications:
"In the subject case which dates back to 2007, the United Kingdom (U.K.) authorities confiscated a consignment of our products shipped to that country by the plaintiff because their benzoic acid levels were not within the UK national level, although well within the levels approved by both the national regulators for Nigeria and the international levels set by Codex, the joint intergovernmental body responsible for harmonizing food standards globally.
"The UK standards limit benzoic acid in soft drinks to a maximum of 150 mg/kg. Both Fanta and Sprite have benzoic levels of 200 mg/kg which is lower than the Nigerian regulatory limit of 250 mg/kg when combined with ascorbic acid and 300 mg/kg without ascorbic acid and also lower than the 600 mg/kg international limit set by Codex."
The NBC said both benzoic acid and ascorbic acid (Vitamin C) are ingredients approved by international food safety regulators and used in many food and beverage products around the world.
It insisted that these two ingredients are also used in combination in some of these products within levels which may differ from one country to another as approved by the respective national food and drug regulators and in line with the range prescribed by Codex.
According to NBC, the permissible ingredient levels set by countries for their food and beverage products are influenced by a number of factors such as climate, an example being the UK, a temperate region, requiring lower preservative levels unlike tropical countries.