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Sodium Benzoate Makes Sour Foods Safer

One of the best aspects of food preservatives is that they can serve two roles as both a preservative and flavor-enhancer, particularly when they’re paired with the right ingredients.  The use of sodium benzoate in food is a perfect example of this.  Due to its high level of acidity, it isn’t appropriate for all foods, but it’s a perfect way to enhance and protect foods that are bitter, sour, or salty!

Why Using Sodium Benzoate in Food Makes Sense for Sour Dishes

Sodium benzoate is the sodium salt of benzoic acid and readily converts back to that acid when exposed to water.  Benzoic acid is a wholly natural product, found in numerous fruits and vegetables, seafood, and even milk!  Fundamentally, benzoic acid is one of nature’s own preservatives, and sodium benzoate is basically just a portable form of it that’s easily added to packaged foods.

Sodium benzoate is also considered entirely safe to consume, as long as it’s within recommended levels as enforced by the US Food & Drug Administration (FDA) as well as similar bodies around the world.

Sodium benzoate’s best attribute as a preservative is that it’s an anti-fungal, preventing preserved foods from becoming infected with fungus spores that could potentially make people sick.  Its high level of acidity also allows it to create a generally inhospitable environment for other microorganisms as well.

Like all acidic substances, sodium benzoate has a noticeably sharp and bitter flavor, with some salty undertones as well.  This means it isn’t the best choice for all-purpose preservation, but it’s perfect for dishes that are already sour, bitter, or salty.  It also pairs well with many hot sauces and other sources of capsaicin heat, which also tend to be sour or bitter.  In these cases, it doesn’t merely protect the food from infestation, it also enhances the taste!

Just a few of the packaged foods which frequently utilize sodium benzoate include:

  • Vinegar-based salad dressings
  • Soy sauce and other fermented sauces
  • Sauerkraut
  • Kimchi
  • Pickles
  • Acidic fruit preserves
  • Fruit juices 
  • Sodas
  • Soured milk products
  • Cheeses
  • Ketchup, mustard, and similar condiments

In short, sodium benzoate in food is excellent for preserving and enhancing almost any food which is already somewhat bitter, sour, or acidic.

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Is Sodium Benzoate in Food Safe to Eat?

Wise consumers – and wise manufacturers – are aware of what additives are being put into foods, and whether there are any potential health risks.  Very little in life is ever 100% safe, but food products need to be produced in a way that minimizes any possible risk.  However, sometimes there can be controversies.

Sodium benzoate is one of these controversial substances.  While numerous studies and government safety bureaus have declared sodium benzoate in food to be safe, it none the less attracts some critical attention.  Why is that?  We have a quick breakdown.

What Is Sodium Benzoate?

Sodium benzoate is a salt-like preservative, made from sodium and benzoic acid, which has been used in numerous food products for decades.  It has a slightly tart, bitter flavor – due to the acid – and is, therefore, most successful as a preservative in foods that are already a bit tart or bitter.

You will find sodium benzoate in soft drinks, cider, salted products like margarine, salad dressings, fruit jams & jellies, pre-prepared vegetable salads, and many more.  It is one of the most common preservatives in common use.

Is Sodium Benzoate in food safe?

Yes.  Sodium benzoate itself is completely safe.  It is Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) by the American Food and Drug Administration, as well as receiving similar ratings from other governmental food regulation bodies around the world.  When used in recommended quantities, it poses no direct health risk.

Why do some sources say that sodium benzoate is dangerous?

The issue is not what sodium benzoate is; it’s what sodium benzoate can become.

When sodium benzoate is in the presence of ascorbic acid – that is, vitamin C – the chemicals may interact and create benzene.  Benzene is recognized as a carcinogen and is particularly known for attacking bone marrow.

This wouldn’t be an issue, except that during the 90s-00s, certain soft drinks were found to contain enough ascorbic acid to cause this reaction with sodium benzoate.  When the matter was uncovered, the manufacturers of these drinks – of course – reformulated them to remove the risk.  However, some damage was done to the reputation of sodium benzoate in the process.

Today, any reputable food manufacturer takes pains to ensure it does not come into contact with ascorbic acid.

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Everything You Need to Know About Sodium Benzoate

Sodium Benzoate is among the most commonly used artificial preservatives in food and medicine today.  It is also well-studied and considered to be Generally Recognized As Safe (GRAS) by the FDA, allowing it to be used a wide variety of products.

In this article, we’ll cover what sodium benzoate is, where it comes from, its uses, and any potential health issues that might arise from overuse.

  1. The Basics of Sodium Benzoate 

Sodium benzoate is an odorless white power, created by combining benzoic acid with sodium hydroxide (lye).  Sodium benzoate is not naturally occurring and must be created in a lab, although its primary ingredient – benzoic acid – is natural.  This acid can be found in many commonplace plants, such as tomatoes, cloves, cinnamon, apples, and cranberries.  It is also produced as a byproduct of some fermenting processes, such as the creation of yogurt.

Benzoic acid is already a good preservative on its own.  The addition of sodium hydroxide makes it more readily soluble, and therefore easier to use in a wider variety of products.

  1. Uses of Sodium Benzoate 

Sodium benzoate was among the first artificial preservatives approved by the FDA and is therefore used widely throughout the food and beverage industry.  It actively inhibits the growth of molds and bacteria, allowing for significantly extended shelf lives for treated products.

Being based in an acid, the preservative does have a noticeable sharp flavor.  Therefore, it is most commonly used in products which are themselves acidic or salty, such as sodas, citric juices, pickles, salad dressing, and soy sauce.

Sodium benzoate also sees significant use in the health and beauty industries.  It is commonly used as a preservative for liquid medications, such as cough syrup, and is also utilized in a wide variety of cosmetics.

III. Potential Health Issues from Sodium Benzoate

While sodium benzoate itself is harmless, in certain circumstances it can convert into benzene, which is known to be a carcinogen.  This is most likely to happen when in the presence of Vitamin C (ascorbic acid).  However, the process is inhibited when sugars are present, so the biggest danger is from diet sodas and fruit juices.  The industry generally avoids using sodium benzoate in diet/sugar-free drinks for this reason.

Otherwise, sodium benzoate is considered entirely safe when used in proper quantities.

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Common Uses of Sodium Benzoate

If you’ve recently begun in the commercial food industry, you may have heard a lot about sodium benzoate but are still unsure of exactly what it does. It may surprise you, but sodium benzoate is actually an integral part of commercial food production, adding flavor at times and keeping products in great shape for consumers. (more…)

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