Naturally better – New food preservative from Australia

May 29, 2008 by  
Filed under Food & Nutrition, Health

Concerns have been raised over the past few years about the safety of E211, known as sodium benzoate, a preservative used for decades by the carbonated drinks industry. Sodium benzoate derives from benzoic acid and occurs naturally in berries, but is used in large quantities to prevent mould in soft drinks, pickles and sauces. Sodium benzoate has been linked to cancer concerns because when mixed with the additive vitamin C in soft drinks, it causes benzene, a carcinogenic substance. A Food Standards Agency survey of benzene in drinks last year found high levels in four brands which were removed from sale, but there was then found to be another problem.

Professor Peter Piper, a professor of molecular biology and biotechnology and expert in ageing at Sheffield University, has been working on sodium benzoate since publishing a research paper in 1999. He tested the impact of sodium benzoate on living yeast cells in his laboratory and found that the benzoate was damaging an important area of DNA in the “power station” of cells known as the mitochondria. He told The Independent on Sunday in an interview that, “These chemicals have the ability to cause severe damage to DNA in the mitochondria to the point that they totally inactivate it: they knock it out altogether.”

Professor Piper’s main concern though is for adults, and particularly children, who consume large amounts of fizzy drinks. A review of sodium benzoate by the World Health Organisation in 2000 concluded that it was safe, but it noted that the available science supporting its safety was “limited”. Professor Piper, whose work has been funded by a government research council, said tests conducted by the US Food and Drug Administration were out of date. “By the criteria of modern safety testing, the safety tests were inadequate. Like all things, safety testing moves forward and you can conduct a much more rigorous safety test than you could 50 years ago.” The makers of the major soft drink brands, and the British Soft Drinks Association, said they entrusted the safety of additives to the Government. So needless to say most sensible people have a right to feel worried.

Help may be at hand though from an Australian inventor who has developed a blend of native Australian herbs that he says functions as an effective preservative for food and drink and that can be used to replace artificial preservatives such as sodium benzoate. Vic Cherikoff’s product Herbal-Active is marketed as an inhibitor of bacteria and surface mould growth, and as a flavouring agent. He researched a number of native Australian herbs and developed a blend that is 30 times more effective as a preservative than the sum of all the plants put together. Because he cannot afford to patent the blend, Cherikoff says, he will not reveal which herbs are being used, but that all of them are native culinary herbs and are either wild-harvested or grown on organic plantations.

Because all the ingredients in Herbal-Active are already culinary herbs, the product can be listed as “herbal extracts” in ingredients lists, and products using it can bear a “preservative-free” label. It has already been bought and used by a university in South Wales, which runs a small dairy. The herbal preservative is used to keep their cheeses from spoiling due to exposure to the yeast from a nearby vineyard. Apparently Herbal-Active does not affect lactic acid bacteria, meaning that it can be used as a preservative in fermented meat and dairy products without interfering with those products’ probiotic effects. He may be able to apply for that patent soon because it now seems that a major juice company is testing Herbal-Active for potential use.

The fizz that could be fatal

An ingredient widely used as a preservative in fizzy soft drinks has triggered alarm for several years but now it may be even more dangerous than was believed. Sodium benzoate (E211) has been identified, when linked with vitamin C in soft drinks, as a combination that forms benzene, a recognised carcinogen. The Food Standards Agency ordered four fizzy drinks removed from sale last year after unsafe levels of benzene were detected, though it is still present in many other soft drinks. Now scientists at Sheffield University have identified another danger from E211 in that when it was tested on living yeast cells in a laboratory it was seen that the benzoate was damaging an important area of DNA. Peter Piper, the lead researcher, stated that ‘these chemicals have the ability to cause severe damage to DNA in the mitochondria to the point that they totally inactivate it: they knock it out altogether. If the mitochondria is damaged then the cell starts to malfunction very seriously”. Diseases that are linked with damage to this DNA include Parkinson’s, cirrhosis of the liver, a number of neuro-degenerative diseases and of course the whole process of ageing. I am a great advocate of label checking, I am the one standing in the supermarket aisle for ten minutes trying to read the small print, and in this case it would be sensible to see whether your favourite soft drink contains the vitamin C and E211 combination.