Sodium Benzoate Messes With Mitochondria?

A new study shows that a common ingredient in soda has the potential to mess up your mitochondria. No, it’s not the plot of Parasite Eve. From the Independent:

[An] expert in ageing at Sheffield University, who has been working on sodium benzoate since publishing a research paper in 1999, has decided to speak out about another danger. Professor Peter Piper, a professor of molecular biology and biotechnology, tested the impact of sodium benzoate on living yeast cells in his laboratory. What he found alarmed him: the benzoate was damaging an important area of DNA in the “power station” of cells known as the mitochondria.

Ok, we know its hard to take news seriously when it comes from a guy named Peter Piper, but sodium benzoate is no joke. It’s in a lot of beverages. Coke, Pepsi, 7 Up, you name it. Constant readers will remember it as one half of the recent “sodium benzoate plus vitamin C = benzene = cancer” debacle. —MEGHANN MARCO

Caution: Some soft drinks may seriously harm your health [Independent] (Thanks, Tom!)
(Photo: decaf)

RELATED: Coca-Cola Settles Benzene Lawsuit

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  1. holocron says:

    Hell, I’m just impressed by the Parasite Eve reference!

    Cheers!

  2. Dustbunny says:

    Ooh, first to make a Peter Piper joke!Peter Piper picks on a pack of Pepsi…is what this story sez ??

  3. umrain says:

    Well that explains why my mitochondria are always sore.

  4. ptkdude says:

    Holy cow! When did Dr. Piper complete his research on pickled peppers?

  5. peokuk says:
  6. mendel says:

    Even worse, sodium benzoate is an “ingredient” in fruit (apples and cranberries, especially) — and worse yet, the levels in fruit are far higher than what the FDA allows as an additive. Watch those apples!

  7. rmz says:

    I was just playing that game the other day. Thumbs up.

  8. timmus says:

    What? How does sodium benzoate get into fruit? Is it natural?

  9. minneapolisite says:

    A little Wikipedia research gave me this:

    Yes, it’s found in some fruits:
    [Sodium benzoate] is found naturally in cranberries, prunes, greengage plums, cinnamon, ripe cloves, and apples. Concentration as a preservative is limited by the FDA in the U.S. to 0.1% by weight though organically-grown cranberries and prunes can conceivably contain levels exceeding this limit.

    Why it’s believed to be harmful in soda, but not in fruit:
    In combination with ascorbic acid (vitamin C, E300), sodium benzoate and potassium benzoate may form benzene, a known carcinogen. Heat, light and shelf life can affect the rate at which benzene is formed.

    Peter Piper reports that it’s even dangerous on it’s own, not only when it reacts with ascorbic acid)
    Professor Peter Piper of Sheffield University claims that sodium benzoate by itself can damage and inactivate vital parts of DNA in a cell’s mitochondria.

  10. lizzybee says:

    @timmus: Yes, it’s natural. And it’s used in acidic beverages specifically to kill yeast. So, I’m a little baffled about why this scientist is testing it on yeast and extrapolating that effect to humans. Why not test it on animal cells and then make a slightly sounder conclusion?

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sodium_benzoate

  11. virgilstar says:

    So who the hell publishes a paper in 2001, and then waits 6 years before “going public” with the results? Yeah, that guy sounds like a real “EXPERT”.

    A quick search on PubMed (the bio-sciences publications database run by the national library of medicine) using the terms [Piper P [AU] AND mitochondri* AND benzoate] pulls up a grand total of 2 papers – neither of them on the toxicity of benzoate to mitochondrial DNA. Similarly, another search for just [benzoate AND mtDNA] (the latter being the abbreviation for mitochondrial DNA) brings up just 8 papers – none of them from Piper.

    Seriously guys, get a decent science reporter. Scare tactics like this will have you claiming that global warming is a myth pretty soon!

  12. swalve says:

    lizzybee- wow- is that really true? It must be, it makes more sense than Dr. Piper’s ridiculousness. Also, doesn’t most fruit have vitamin C too?

    I’m going to write a paper where I figure out that penicillin breaks down the cell walls of simple bacteria! And thus must be deadly poisonous to us humans…

  13. lincolnparadox says:


    virgilstar: The first Piper paper came out in 1999.

    “Yeast superoxide dismutase mutants reveal a pro-oxidant action of weak organic acid food preservatives” Free Radical Biology and Medicine
    Volume 27, Issues 11-12, December 1999, Pages 1219-1227

    The reason your search didn’t pick anything up is because Piper was looking at the effects of two organic acids commonly used as food preservatives, sorbic and benzoic acids. The salts of which are potassium or sodium sorbate or benzoate.

    Peter Piper is a leading researcher in Yeast metabolism, especially heat shock and abiotic stress. For Piper PW I found 102 articles. For Piper P I found 323. Piper has written 11 more papers on weak organic acid stress in yeast. His findings show that these organic acids, commonly found in berries and other fruits, cause mitochondiral damage and mutation, and defects that prevent yeast from absorbing nutrients. That’s pretty much why these compounds are used as preservatives, because they inhibit fungal growth.

    The reason Piper has waited so long to “speak out” is because all of his research has been done on Yeast, and would be difficult to correlate with humans. However, our mitochondria aren’t that much different than a yeast’s mitochondria, and 8 years of research has given Dr. Piper enough evidence to suggest that the FSA in the UK take another look at sodium and potassium benzoate. Because, according to what he has seen, it can cause oxidative stress and mutation in eukaryotic mitochondria. That’s yeast, that’s humans, that’s everything with a nucleus.

    Is it proof? No. That 2-liter of Dew you drink everyday won’t hurt you one bit. But, long-term use of products that contain benzoate or sorbate has the potential to screw up your mitochondria, just like it screws up yeast mitochondria.

    Piper is a respected expert. If you read the article from the Independent, he gave a very reserved statement. It made him sound like an expert.

    Just like your sarcastic quip at the end of your post makes you sound like an industry plant. Caution for the consumer is never an act of ignorance. We don’t need to drink Pepsi or Coke products if they contain something that might be harmful.

  14. mjryan78 says:

    Regardless of the claims made about sodium benzoate and their actual validity, can I just point out that it’s not actually an ingredient in regular Coke? In fact, I don’t see any of the benzoates (sodium, potassium or calcium) on the list of ingredients. If it is an ingredient, my can is clearly not labeled appropriately. To contrast, it is plainly listed as an ingredient on my Dr Pepper. Am I missing something?

    This is further substantiated by the testing the FDA did for benzene levels in soft drinks. Though not exhaustive (I believe they tested 1% of the market), I am assuming they would test the number one soda in the country if there were a risk of benzene formation. Dr Pepper is on the list, as is Diet Coke, but regular Coke is not. This would suggest that Coke either contains no sodium benzoate, no ascorbic acid, or both.

    The results can be seen here:

    http://www.cfsan.fda.gov/~dms/benzdata.html

  15. cudthecrud says:

    lincolnparadox: your comments are thoughtful and relevant. I appreciate when other scientists (or informed lay) step up and try and shed a bit more light on things.

    I however, think that the beauty of the human gut probably eliminates most, if any chance, that ingested sodium benzoate will reach any mitochondria at an appreciable level. There’s a lot more membranes to get through when your trying to apply yeast observations to higher order organisms.

  16. Scazza says:

    @MEGHANN MARCO
    When are you getting the job at Kotaku, thats an awesome reference to Parasite Eve!

  17. Meg Marco says:

    @Scazza: @& holocron: Were you guys aware that I wrote a book about science fiction? I’m actually too nerdy for Kotaku.

  18. lincolnparadox says:

    @cudthecrud: cTc, you may be right. And that’s why Piper didn’t say “Mountain Dew is made with poison!”

    He’s asking the FSA to make sure. Mostly because sodium benzoate is in everything. I went through all of the beverages in the supermarket fridge. I can drink water, milk, juice or Arizona teas. I couldn’t find a single soda without benzoate or sorbate. Plus, most of the snack foods we eat have one of these preservatives too.

    Honestly, I’d like the Uk to pay for the testing. Better them than us. And if their findings show that benzoate or sorbate can accumulate in our tissues and hurt our mitochondria, well, maybe then I’ll cut Ho-Hos and ritz bits out of my snacks?

  19. dabean says:

    I, too, am thoroughly impressed with the Parasite Eve mention. That is probably the first place I encountered what the hell mitochondria was. See what video games can teach you?

  20. mac-phisto says:

    it’s in pickles. well, f- that. i ain’t giving up my pickles DAMMIT!

  21. mjryan78 says:

    @lincolnparadox: You probably won’t see this since my posts apparently aren’t edgy and entertaining enough (facts alone don’t grant you admission to this exclusive club)…however, Classic Coke and Pepsi and many other soft drinks (I’ve been looking into this extensively ) do not contain any benzoates whatsoever (or any sorbates for that matter – maybe you’re thinking ascorbic acid/Vitamin C? – not the same thing). Benzoates are common, especially in citrus sodas (and to my great dismay it’s in regular Dr Pepper), but it’s not hard to find soft drinks that don’t contain it. I’m sorry, but I have to call bullshit on your statement. Either that, or you did not perform enough due diligence at your local super market. The same can be said for the Independent article this post links to. It is blatantly false.. Classic Coke and regular Pepsi do not contain benzoates, plain and simple. Perhaps this is a different story in the UK, but I can only attest its absence in Coke and Pepsi bottled in the Northeastern United States; no benzoates of any kind. Diet Pepsi and Coke are another story entirely.

    For more proof of this:

    http://www.cfsan.fda.gov/~dms/benzdata.html

    The FDA did testing for benzene formation in soft drinks. Regular Coke is not even listed (presumably because the liklihood of a soda containing neither sodium benzoate, nor ascorbic acid, creating benzene was pretty slim); however, they did test regular Pepsi (explicitly stating that it contains “no benzoate, ascorbate, or EDTA”) and found no detectable traces of benzene, which is actually better than standard tap water in many parts of this country.

    Also, not to derail the whole topic, because my personal/non-scientific/paranoid belief is that the additive is danerous, but I’d be more worried about cranberry juice than regular soda. Regular cranberry juice contains a great deal of naturally-occuring sodium benzoate (enough to violate FDA-limits at times) and many, many distributors of cranberry juice (Ocean Spray to name one national brand) artificially adds ascorbic acid; bam: the two things you need to create benzene. The only upside (this applies to regular soda as well) is that sugar seems to inhibit the process of benzene formation; so, if you’re looking for a ticking time bomb….look no further than diet cranberry juice. The aforementioned FDA link bears this out as well. So, drink up.

  22. RagingTowers says:

    Oh no! My Midicloriens!

  23. Melikoth says:

    Having read this article by way of Digg.com the other day I immediately went to the refrigerator to check on the ingredients listed in my roommates diet Pepsi. It turns out that it doesn’t contain Sodium Benzoate, but Potassium Benzoate. Both appear to react the same way giving what I could garner from Google.

    I also came across a FAQ by the American Beverage Association that was directed at this issue.

    http://www.ameribev.org/industry-issues/healthy-balanced-d

  24. virgilstar says:

    @lincolnparadox: “it can cause oxidative stress and mutation in eukaryotic mitochondria. That’s yeast, that’s humans, that’s everything with a nucleus”

    Sorry, but that’s just complete bunk. There are a lot of differences between yeast mtDNA and human mtDNA (like the fact that the latter is 16kb whereas the former is ~80kb, i.e. 5 times bigger). Tons of money has been spent on people doing tox’ experiments in yeast and even in human cell cuultures, then finding it has no applicability to real humans. Sure, yeast is a good model system to work out basic mechanisms, but when it comes to toxicity studies, where complex interactions apply (e.g. gut acidity), don’t even pretend that adding this stuff to yeast cells in culture is remotely applicable to a human drinking soda. This argument is particularly true for oxidative stress… despite millions of dollars and a huge push for people to take antioxidant supplments, all based on cell experiments, there is sound clinical evidence that antioxidant pills do absolutely NOTHING to the progression of any human disease. Randomized, placebo-controlled double blind studies with over 20,000 participants have failed to show any effect of antioxidants on any disease outcome. There’s a big gap in knowledge between throwing chemicals at cells, and real people ingesting and metabolizing those chemicals.

    I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with the proposal that the government reassess the use of additives such as benzoate. Its just a bit annoying when sites such as this come up with attention-grabbing headlines like “sodium benzoate messes with mitochondria”, based on an article in a newspaper which cites work that is 8 years old, in mostly specialist back-water journals. If this was a hot new finding that had been publicized widely, and was in a major MEDICAL journal, with a press-release endorsed by the expert’s institution, and it involved a human clinical trial then I could understand, but this current “headline” is really nothing to get excited about.

    One of the big ideas behind the NIH RoadMap initiative, is that you can arse about in the lab throwing stuff at yeast all day long, but sooner or later you have to actually do something with real people in order to have an impact on human health. Regarding your “industry” remark. Please don’t make me laugh! My opinions are not those of an industry plant, they are those of an independent researcher at a US university, with no industry contacts whatsoever.

  25. mjryan78 says:

    @lincolnparadox: You have more to drink in my fridge than I do at the moment. Classic Coke, Pepsi and many other soft drinks (I’ve been looking into this extensively – due to unmitigated parania) do not contain any benzoates whatsoever (or any sorbates for that matter – maybe you’re thinking ascorbate which is ascorbic acid/Vitamin C? – not the same thing – but also absent from Coke and Pepsi). Benzoates are common, especially in citrus sodas (and to my great dismay it’s in regular Dr Pepper), but it’s not hard to find soft drinks that don’t contain it. You just have to perform a little due diligence at your local super market. The same can be said for the Independent article this post links to. It is blatantly false.. Coca-Cola does not contain benzoates, plain and simple (Pepsi doesn’t either, but the article does not say regular Pepsi, only Pepsi Max and Diet Pepsi – which is correct).

    For more info on sodium benzoate and benzene levels in some soft drinks, this is a good start, though ridiculously limited in scope:

    http://www.cfsan.fda.gov/~dms/benzdata.html

    If you check the bottom, regular Pepsi is explicitly listed as containing “no benzoate, ascorbate, or EDTA” and found no detectable traces of benzene, which is actually better than standard tap water in many parts of this country. The same could be said for many soft drinks that did contain both ingredients.

    I guess it’s kind of moot, since after reading several of these articles, I’ve just decided to forego drinking soda entirely (Yes, I overreacted and tossed my entire stash of Dr Pepper – oh the humanity!); however, I’d be more worried about cranberry juice than regular soda. Real cranberry juice can contain a great deal of naturally-occuring sodium benzoate (enough to violate FDA-limits at times) and many, many distributors of cranberry juice (Ocean Spray to name one national brand) artificially add ascorbic acid; bam: the two things you need to create benzene. The only upside (this applies to regular soda as well) is that sugar seems to inhibit the process of benzene formation; so, if you’re looking for a ticking time bomb….look no further than diet cranberry juice. The aforementioned FDA link bears this out as well. So, drink up.

  26. lincolnparadox says:


    @virgilstar: Backwater specialty journals, yikes. So, what? If an article isn’t published in Nature or Science, then it’s not worth reading? The majority of science comes out of specialty journals, definitely the majority of medical advances. And Piper has been publishing papers on this for the past decade. This isn’t all he works on.

    You have a skewed view of science. Did a biologist hurt you? Don’t hate all of us, we’re not all bad people.

    As for your comments, you’re right. Yeast mitochondria are different than human mitochondria. Their genomes are different, they do a lot of interesting genome reorganization that ours don’t, they certainly are more well-studied. Which is why they’re looked at first. Perhaps by the time soda pop gets through our GI tract, into our blood and filtered through our kidneys, it doesn’t matter what’s in the beverage? But, at a cellular level, I would assume that an organic acid reacts with mitochondria in a similar way. In practice, who knows? It might take 30 years of pop drinking to cause any damage.

    It might take a week? I want to know.

    @mjryan78: I live in Central Iowa. Maybe your bottling plants are different than mine. But, from what I found, in Central Iowa, every soda had one of the following:

    sodium benzoate
    potassium benzoate
    benzoic acid
    sorbic acid
    polysorbate 40

    Which according to Piper are all bad. Benzoate plus ascorbic acid make benzene, but benzoate or sorbate on their own are bad too. Again, plants make these things to kill microorganisms in/on their fruit. So, they’re poison. They’re just not toxic enough to make us not want to eat some berries.

  27. Longevity says:

    Thank you for your interesting story!
    I thought perhaps you may interested in this related ongoing discussion:
    Longevity Science: Soft Drinks Linked to Aging ?