What is sodium benzoate?

Updated March 27, 2024

Sodium benzoate is a preservative found in fruit juices, fermented foods, sauces and some pancake syrups.

This food chemical has been linked to a variety of health harms, including damage to DNA, hormone disruption and reduced fertility. 

Sodium benzoate also poses a cancer risk, but only if combined with the use of ascorbic acid, citric acid or vitamin C as a preservative, and is added at larger amounts as well as stabilized. Under conditions of elevated temperatures or exposure to sunlight, these factors combined can lead to the formation of benzene, a chemical associated with blood cancers.

The same chemical process happens when ascorbic acid, citric acid or vitamin C is combined with another preservative potassium benzoate. 

There are over 20,000 products in EWG’s Food Scores database that contain both sodium benzoate and ascorbic acid, citric acid or vitamin C. Food Scores lists products based on ingredient, nutrition and processing concerns. Soda, cakes, sauces and salad dressings are some of the types of foods most likely to contain both sodium benzoate and ascorbic or citric acid, or vitamin C.

Get Your Free Guide: EWG's Guide to Food Additives

Is sodium benzoate regulated?

If sodium benzoate is known to harm people's health, why is it legal for use in food?

Questionable additives, including sodium benzoate, continue to be allowed in the food we eat because of the Food and Drug Administration’s outdated generally recognized as safe, or GRAS, rule loophole. 

The purpose of the rule was to allow ingredients to skip regulatory approval only if they’re known to be safe. But it’s allowed manufacturers, not the FDA, to certify their own ingredients as safe.

Since 2000, nearly 99 percent of new food chemicals added to the food supply chain have exploited the GRAS loophole. 

And government agencies regulate chemicals one at a time. Potential harm caused by exposure to food chemicals does not come from exposure to just one ingredient. Instead, many health harms can be caused by a combination of ingredients, like sodium benzoate and ascorbic acid, sodium benzoate and citric acid, and sodium benzoate and vitamin C.

These toxic combinations must be taken into account for regulation to be effective.

How can I avoid this harmful additive?

If you’d like to limit or avoid exposure to sodium benzoate, you can: 

  • Check food product labels and avoid those that list both sodium benzoate and ascorbic acid, citric acid and vitamin C as ingredients. Food companies must list these chemicals on packaged food ingredient labels. 
  • Consult EWG’s Food Scores database to find products without this combination of ingredients. When you’re on the go, use our Healthy Living app to find products without toxic chemicals.
  • Look for packaged foods that are certified organic whenever it’s possible and within budget. These products must meet strong standards that protect consumers from exposure to potentially harmful artificial additives. 
  • Reduce consumption of ultra-processed foods when possible. Many contain concerning ingredients, including other food chemicals that could harm your health. 

Sodium benzoate in other consumer products

Sodium benzoate and citric acids are also used together in cleaners and personal care products. But the formulation of these products differs from the way the chemical is used in food.

In cleaners and personal care products, citric acid is used as a pH adjuster and converted to a salt, which minimizes the formation of benzene.


Disqus Comments

Related News

Continue Reading