There’s been a lot of hoopla over Bethenny Frankel’s Skinnygirl cocktails getting banished from the shelves of Whole Foods for not meeting ‘quality standards.’ The cocktails claim to contain only ‘natural’ ingredients, but actually contain sodium benzoate, a common preservative (also known as E211). Sodium benzoate is not carcinogenic on its own, but can become so when combined with things Vitamin C (ascorbic acid); together, sodium benzoate and Vitamin C create benzene, a chemical that’s been proven carcinogenic as well as linked to ADHD and DNA damage.
Is it false advertising? Probably not. Government rules on using the term ‘natural’ for marketing purposes are vague, and allow for some preservatives. Paula Erickson, a representative of Beam Global (which owns the Skinnygirl cocktail brand), told writer Jennifer Kaplan that “any product that sits on the shelf” contains E211, and that Beam “stands by the quality of the product 100%.”
It’s true that a lot of products do contain sodium benzoate—but as far as we know, this is only a problem if the product also contains Vitamin C. Skinnygirl cocktails become problematic because they also contain lime juice.
Benzene is found not just in food and drinks, though, but throughout our environment, coming from tobacco smoke, car exhaust and industrial admissions, as well as products like glues, paints, detergents and furniture wax. We’re being exposed to it all the time—so the little bit that comes from ascorbic acid and sodium benzoate mixing in your soda or prefab margarita is unlikely to hurt you, the UK Food Standards Agency says. People would need to drink at least 5.5 gallons of benzene-containing soda per day to be affected.
Of course, daily personal exposure to benzene is determined by adding exposure from all sources—in other words, a little from this and a little from that could add up. To lessen exposure, you may want to avoid foods and drinks containing both ascorbic acid and sodium benzoate, which should be listed on the label. Products to look out for include:
• Soft drinks (orange, pineapple, and other fruit-flavored sodas are especially likely to contain high benzene levels)
• Vitamin-enriched water or beverages
• Packaged sauerkraut
• Cake Doughnuts
• Energy Drinks
• Frozen Pie Fillings
• Fruit juices
The World Health Organization considers benzene toxic at levels above levels above 5 parts per billion (ppb).