You might already be aware of Sweet Poison, the book by Dr. Janet Starr Hull that details the huge corporate and governmental coverup of the dangers of aspartame. Back in the late ’90s, I started suffering from a mysterious illness that caused strange sensations in my legs. I could not sit for long periods of time, and I even started having trouble walking. I was in my 20s and was otherwise mostly healthy. My doctor could not find out what was causing the issue, but I eventually found some information on the web about aspartame poisoning. At the time, I was drinking one or more Diet Snapples a day, along with one or two diet sodas. As soon as I cut out the diet drinks and started drinking water instead, the symptoms eventually went away. I have since personally known two other people that have been “poisoned” in the same way and who eventually found their “cure” in the elimination of aspartame from their diet. There is plenty of information available on Dr. Starr Hull’s site if you’re interested in why aspartame is dangerous, particularly in cooked foods.
Despite the warnings, for the next ten years or so I still consumed the occasional Diet Coke (or Coke Zero, which is very tasty). I think that’s about to stop altogether though, as I just heard on the Thom Hartman Show about some research on the health effects of sodium benzoate. Apparently, when sodium benzoate is mixed with ascorbic acid, it breaks down into benzene, an industrial solvent that is classified as a carcinogen. Benzene is also a product of cigarette smoke. From Wikipedia:
Benzene exposure has serious health effects. Breathing high levels of benzene can result in death, while low levels can cause drowsiness, dizziness, rapid heart rate, headaches, tremors, confusion, and unconsciousness. Eating or drinking foods containing high levels of benzene can cause vomiting, irritation of the stomach, dizziness, sleepiness, convulsions, rapid heart rate, and death.
The major effect of benzene from chronic (long-term) exposure is to the blood. Benzene damages the bone marrow and can cause a decrease in red blood cells, leading to anemia. It can also cause excessive bleeding and depress the immune system, increasing the chance of infection.
Scary stuff. Most Coke products have moved to potassium benzoate so they can claim a “low sodium” product, but the acting preservative is still benzoic acid. According to Answers.com, potassium benzoate and sodium benzoate both reduce to benzene when combined with ascorbic acid, so it seems the threat is the same regardless of benzoic acid’s initial formuation.
While these dangers have reportedly been well known in the beverage industry for almost two decades, as recently as last year the FDA reopened its investigation into benzene contamination of beverage products. An independent lab in NY “found benzene levels in a couple of soft drinks two-and-a-half-times and five times above the World Health Organisation limit for drinking water (10 parts per billion).” The FDA confirmed the test results and claimed that simple reformulations of certain soft drinks would solve the problem.
Over the weekend though, research from a British University found something far more alarming. Sodium benzoate itself might actually damage DNA. Time to check those labels.