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Benzoic acid and soft drinks: Of emotions, exaggerations and misrepresentations

By Steve Omanufeme

Reactionary statements in the past few weeks on the possible harm of taking Fanta and Sprite due to levels of benzoic acid, a preservative found in many food, beverage and pharmaceutical products, may just be more of a case of an outpouring of emotions rather than a critical interrogation of the facts of the matter.

Both the traditional and the new media have been awash lately with reports of the outcome of a suit brought against the Nigeria Bottling Company, NBC, bottlers of Fanta and Sprite by an exporter, which ruling suggests that taking both drinks with ascorbic acid (Vitamin C) could be harmful due to levels of a preservative component, benzoic acid, that were found to be higher than the UK permissible levels, although compliant with Nigerian regulatory levels.

Nigerians, in their millions, have reacted and careened to the herd instinct, accusing the bottlers and the national regulator (NAFDAC) of failing in their duty of care, thereby casting a smut on both drinks as not fit for consumption. These reactions, however, did not take into consideration the scientific and health regulations on the use of the component in carbonated drinks.

Preferred refreshment options

Since the news broke out, I have restrained myself from making comments on the matter without first interrogating the facts of the matter. Fanta and Sprite are two of Nigeria’s favourite beverage brands, bottled and sold in Nigeria since the 1960s. Both drinks have become not only household brands but the preferred refreshment options for personal and social treats.

Prof.Isaac-Adewole

Yours truly and most Nigerians have almost become ‘addicts’ of the NBC products. So with the recent reports of the possible harm the products could cause when taken with ascorbic acid, popularly referred to as vitamin C, a public outcry was expected. However, the media and regulatory authorities were not quick in providing adequate education and guiding expectations regarding the court ruling on the suit.

The cause of the public outcry against the product and manufacturer really lies in the knowledge that an advanced economy like the UK disallowed the products at their border for non-compliance with their national and EU permissible levels of benzoic acid, a globally certified food preservative. The view inspired by the trial judge in the related case which is being canvassed by the media and embraced by most Nigerians is that for the UK to reject the products, it means they are not fit for consumption. This is without recourse to international regulations on the use of benzoic acids. Equally, consumers are also wary that the bottlers did not at any time actively educate them of the presence of the component (although benzoic acid and other ingredients are generally disclosed on the product packs and labels as required by regulation), which becomes carcinogenic at certain levels, especially when exposed to higher degrees of temperature.

The consternation of the public is also fueled by the fact that it took the UK authorities and the Nigerian exporter to expose the arguably remote potential for the preservative to have harmful side effects on humans, despite the products being consumed for over five decades in the country.

While it is true that most Nigerians are hardly exposed to literature on benzoic acid and benzene, the regulatory authorities, especially NAFDAC, had come out to speak on the issue when the case first came up in 2008.

Specifically, the NAFDAC, according to a report in The Guardian of October 30, 2008, assured the public on the quality of NBC products. The assurance came when a Lagos High Court ordered it to retest the products of the company, following the case brought against NBC by the exporter. That assurance provided by NAFDAC then under the leadership of the celebrated Professor Dora Akunyili, put to rest the public concerns until the recent ruling asking the company to label its bottles with the warning that the products when taken with vitamin C could be harmful, a ruling which the company has since appealed against.

Benzoic acid is indeed approved by International Food Safety regulators as well as national regulators as a preservative and used in many food and beverage products in approved measures around the world. It is very effective against molds, yeasts and bacteria. It is particularly well-suited for use in soft drinks, such as carbonated, still and juice beverages because it works best between pH levels of 2–4. The composition of these beverages therefore has an effect on its efficiency and suitability for use.

Efficiency and suitability

At the global level, internationally recognised standards, codes of practice and guidelines relating to foods, food production and food safety are set by Codex, established for that purpose by the United Nations through the Food and Agriculture Organisation and the World Health Organization WHO.

For Benzoic acid in carbonated soft drinks, the standard or permissible limit set by Codex was 600mg/kg until recently reviewed to 250mg/kg in 2016 (CODEX STAN  192–1995  revised 2015 and 2016) and ratified in March 2017.

At the country level, national regulators are at liberty to set their respective permissible limits guided by the Codex standard, and taking into consideration their environmental (and other) factors. With respect to Nigeria, the Standards Organisation of Nigeria, SON, in consultation with technical experts and relevant stakeholders, set the standard of benzoic acid in soft drinks that contain no Ascorbic acid (Vitamin C), such as Sprite, to be at 250mg/kg; and 300mg/kg for soft drinks that contain Ascorbic acid, such as Fanta.

This standard has been in existence since 1997 and was revised in 2008. (NIS 217:2008). The permissible standard for Benzoic preservatives in carbonated soft drinks set by EU regulations and applicable in the UK is 150mg/kg. The respective national standards vary widely among countries, with some (such as the US and Canada).

There are many questions begging for answers relating to the current issue on ground: Would a consumer get poisoned when Fanta is taken with ascorbic acid (Vitamin C)? The answer is definitely no. For Benzene (the risk factor) to formally occur, the benzoate level must be above the Codex levels of 600mg/kg (revised to 250mg/kg in March 2017), in the presence of metal ions (iron, copper) that act as catalysts with vitamin C under UV radiation, heat (over 60C) and time.

Fanta has a lower benzoate content of about 184mg/kg (lower than both Codex and the Nigerian regulatory standards), thereby making it safe for consumption, particularly as all other catalysts are rarely present to result in an unsafe formation.

Is the UK standard the universal standard that must be adhered to by all countries? No. The fact on ground indicates that benzoic acid levels for carbonated drinks in the US and Canada are even higher than that contained in the Fanta and Sprite rejected by the UK authorities.

Do our food and health authorities deserve our trust? Though it may not be hundred percent, they sure deserve our trust in this case since they have followed the internationally recognised CODEX guidelines and set a 250/mg limit for the component in our drinks.

The public statement issued by the Federal Ministry of Health on March 17, 2017 also did not state that the bottler had compromised any safety regulation. Equally it did not contain any specific order or directive for NBC or the beverage industry to include a warning label on their products. Rather, the statement contained an advisory that “all bottling companies are encouraged to insert advisory warnings on all products as necessary”.

More questions: Must we always pander to the standards of other climes?    Why is the judgement on the case making the rounds after weeks of adjudication? Are there motives beyond educating consumers of taking precaution when consuming carbonated drinks? Or is there a case of litigation funding where claimants with legitimate grievances get external help, even if the helpers are out to make pecuniary gains? The answers to the above would give us an in-depth insight into the matter.

The traditional media, on the other hand, has also failed, in this case, in its duty of proper information. Increasingly, it is almost always relying on the new media, which is without gate-keeping, in making news judgement and reports, instead of being interpretative and analytic in its duty of factual information dissemination. The current scenario is making it difficult for the ordinary Nigerian to rely on the media for factual information on issues.

The NAFDAC and SON, which are the legitimate authorities on food administration, have made their positions on the issue but instead of reporting the facts of the matter, the media has pandered to the emotions of the public.

Unsafe for human consumption

It is noteworthy to mention that neither the certificate of analysis obtained by the UK authorities nor the letter from the authorities informing the claimant of the test results classified the said products as being ‘unsafe for human consumption’.

The documents simply stated that the benzoic levels in the products were in excess of the UK-permissible limits, and therefore non-compliant with EU regulations. Notably, in a letter to the claimant dated April 11, 2007, the StockPort Metropolitan Borough Council Trading Standards Officer, Gareth Hollingsworth, said: “It appears that different countries have different limits for additives”.

While we should all be worried by what we ingest into our systems, we should be equally conversant with our national health regulations for us to make informed decisions and actions. All processed foods do have their side effects just like medicine. However, the real risk resides with the individual, regarding levels of ingestion and frequency.

Unrestrained ingestion of even natural drinks like water equally has its own side effects. To reassure consumers the NBC should do its duty of care by providing much more information about their products in terms of the components used on their bottles for ease of reference, and storage and handling tips.

This critique will not be fair without recognising and commending the Federal Ministry of Health for showing leadership in this crisis by stepping forth with a detailed clarifying public statement which put the issues in context, enabling any objective person to see the facts that had been buried in the mounting heap of exaggerations, misrepresentations and even outright falsehood.

Steve Omanufeme lives in Lagos.

 


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Comments expressed here do not reflect the opinions of vanguard newspapers or any employee thereof.