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Beverages meet legal preservative limits, says UK survey

By Jess Halliday , 25-Nov-2008

Soft drinks on sale in the UK were seen to have a near 100 per cent compliance with maximum levels of benzoates and sorbates used as preservatives, a survey by the Food Standards Agency has shown.

Benzoates and sorbates are often used in soft drinks to prevent growth of yeast, mould and bacteria and to extend shelf life.

Both classes of additives are regulated by The Miscellaneous Food Additives Regulation 1995; the max level for benzoates is 150mg/l, and for sorbates is 300mg/l when used alone, or 250mg/l when in combination with benzoates.

For the survey, 250 soft drinks analysed for benzoic acid (210), sodium benzoate (E211), potassium benzoate (E212), calcium benzoate (E213), sorbic acid (E200), potassium sorbate (E202) and calcium sorbate (E203).

Only one drink product was found to have higher levels of sodium benzoate than the legal max –169mg/l. However the manufacturer of this product, M&J Gleeson & Co, subsequently conducted its own tests and found levels to be below 150mg.

Two other products, Razer Energy’s Stimulation and Energy Drink and Crazy Caps’ Tropical Flavour Natural Still Spring Water, listed only sodium benzoate on the label – but were actually found to have sorbic acid too at levels that would have a technical function.

These companies respectively said they had altered or were reviewing their labels.

Clair Baynton, head of novel foods, additives and supplements division at the Food Standards Agency, said: “It’s good to see that on the whole the drinks industry are complying with the EU law on levels and labelling for benzoates and sorbates.”

A spokesperson for the FSA told FoodNavigator that the survey was conducted as a ‘spot check’ on usage levels, and to ensure that these levels are in compliance with legislation. It was not connected with 2006 concerns about benzene formation as a result of the interaction between sodium benzoate and ascorbic acid under certain conditions.

Benzene formation

Following concerns emanating from the US, the FSA looked at benzene levels in beverages on sale in the UK in 2006

Benzene levels in 230 soft drinks sold in the UK were generally below the World Health Organisation's 10 parts per billion (ppb) limit for drinking water. Yet average benzene levels were above the UK's stricter one ppb limit for water.

The FSA spokesperson told FoodNavigator.com today that the agency is not planning any more surveys on benzene in drinks at present, but it decides on the surveys to which it will channel funding on an annual basis.

In addition, the agency has continued speaking with the drinks industry about benzene and has seen it take the issue seriously. Many beverages have been reformulated to remove the risk of benzene formation.

Sodium benzoate and Southampton

Sodium benzoate was also used in cocktails of food colourings used in the notorious Southampton study, which saw a link between the colourings and hyperactivity in children.

The European Food Standards Agency did not deem the study as sufficient evidence to alter recommended intake of any of the additives used, mainly because the methodology meant it was impossible to ascribe the effect on any of them in particular.

However there are moves in place to phase out the colours in the UK, and to introduce warning levels at an EU level. Sodium benzoate has been excluded from these moves, however, since it performs an active function in the products. Colours, on the other hand, are used for cosmetic purposes.

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