Sodium Benzoate is an extremely common preservative found in a wide variety of food and beverage products, as well as having a few other uses in the medical and industrial fields as well. It is also occasionally known as Benzoate of Soda.
Sodium benzoate is not naturally occurring, although the key component benzoic acid is found in a wide variety of plants including cloves, tomatoes, and cranberries. Benzoic acid can be used as a preservative on its own, but the addition of sodium hydroxide allows it to more easily dissolve into foods and liquids.
Common Uses of Sodium Benzoate in Food Product
Sodium benzoate is classified as Generally Recognized as Safe, and FDA regulations allow up to a .1% concentration by weight when used in foods.
Sodium benzoate acts as a bacteriostatic and fungistatic preservative. That is, it does not kill bacteria or fungus already present, but it does inhibit their growth and reproduction. For products which are pasteurized or otherwise sterilized, this is generally sufficient to prevent contamination.
It is most effective, and therefore most commonly used, within acidic environments. Sodium benzoate is most often found in products such as soy sauce, sodas, pickles, salad dressing, and many other types of food or drink which are already acidic or “tangy.” This also helps cover up the similarly acidic taste of the sodium benzoate.
Sodium benzoate is also often used as a preservative in liquid medicines, such as cough syrup. It may also be found in non-consumable cosmetic items such as toothpaste, mouthwash, and many types of hair care product.
The Health Implications of Sodium Benzoate
In the medical field, sodium benzoate is used to treat elevated levels of ammonia in the blood, as it breaks down ammonia quickly. There is also ongoing research into its use in treating a variety of mental disorders, such as panic attacks, although research thus far has not been conclusive.
There is mild concern that sodium benzoate may be linked to cancer, as it can break down into benzene – a known carcinogen. However, the amount of benzene likely to be found in any product containing sodium benzoate is small, and the FDA has found such trace amounts are not directly harmful to human health.