How Safe are our Soft Drinks?
April 22, 2019
Just how safe are our soft drinks locally manufactured and bottled in Nigeria?
In addition to concern about hygienic packaging there are still questions about the contents and how they are put together.
Recall a couple of years ago when there was considerable worry about this?
It followed judgement on a then 10-year-old court case that involved the failed exportation of soft drinks, Fanta, and Sprite, from Nigeria to the United Kingdom.
As had been widely reported in the media, the UK authorities seized the drinks from the exporter, Fijabi Holdings after testing them to find they did not meet the levels of safe consumption as per UK import guidelines.
Specifically, they had a higher level of Benzoic acid and sunset colour additives than is recommended for safe UK consumption.
There is a worthwhile legal opinion on this matter for those of you who like to look at the legal argument, however the health and social aspects interest us more and this case opens the questions we must ask:
On 29th March 2017, the UK Independent newspaper carried an article in its Business news section, captioned: ‘Coca-Cola’s products Sprite and Fanta may be ‘poisonous’, rules Nigeria Court’.
The article focused on a component of the soft drinks which was at the centre of the debate nearly 2 years ago – Benzoic acid and sunset additives.
Then, the Lagos High Court ruled that: ‘high levels of benzoic acid and additives in Coca-Cola’s soft drinks could pose a health risk to consumers when mixed with ascorbic acid, commonly known as vitamin C.’
Subsequently, this ruling led to a directive from the judge for the Nigeria Bottling Company (NBC), Makers of Coco-Cola and the other soft drinks in Nigeria.
NBC would have to place a warning label on the drinks to advice against their consumption with Vitamin C.
There is a great article here that deals with the nature of Benzoic acid and it is interesting to see that in addition to petroleum / petrochemical products, it can be found in so many natural foods like – apples, honey, cranberry, cinnamon, and yoghurt.
Benzoic acid has also been used in medical bandages, petrochemical products and as a similar medicine to menthol used in steam inhalation to relieve colds/nasal congestion.
So it is undoubtedly a useful product – its use in soft drinks is quite reasonable.
Essentially benzoic acid and its derivatives are chemical compounds that have long been identified as preservatives for manufactured food and drinks as they kill or prevent the growth of harmful bugs that can damage food products.
This function is satisfactory and relatively harmless when the chemicals are used in small proportions – but can be harmful if taken in large proportions.
The essential point about these chemicals is that their activity therefore depends on the concentration used which will determine the effect it can have which speaks to our question on safety.
The Codex Alimentarius Commission is a joint United Nations – WHO body that protects consumer health and promotes fair practice in food and produces CODEX the international guideline and standards for anything to do with food.
At a meeting of Codex Commission in 2016, the concentration for Benzoate in water-based flavoured drinks (soft drinks to you and me) was reduced to 250mg/ml to protect the consumer.
So, the safe levels as recommended by WHO for Benzoic acid in soft drinks are at 250mg/ml and this is what we must hold manufacturers and our regulatory watchdogs to.
The Nigerian Federal Ministry of Health (FMOH) promptly issued a statement which offered to reassure Nigerians while providing details of the Codex guidance levels and other factors as to why the drinks (while considered harmful for the United Kingdom), did not mean they were unsafe in Nigeria.
In this statement, FMOH asserts that the quantities of Benzoic acid used in tested batches for the case in questions were well below the Codex recommendation.
They acknowledged that the regulatory levels for Nigeria are lower than for the UK – but explained these are for climatic differences in the two countries.
So after looking at all these – what is the answer to the safety question?
Only a partial Yes.
How often do regulators check manufacturing compliance? Sadly perhaps not as frequently as we would hope!
The potential harm of excess concentration of Benzoate are not the only sources of concern.
Soft drinks ALSO contain dangerous amounts of sugar and hence can contribute to several other serious conditions including heart disease, stroke, and Diabetes.
And they contain colourings like Sunset Yellow which is a food additive banned in some countries.
It can cause allergies and side effects – and has been shown to have potential for causing hyperactivity in children – we could really do with local studies on effects of this and similar additives.
This question addresses two related issues – taking medicines with anything but water – which is referred to in the FMoH statement with the gentle encouragement to take medicines with nothing more than bottled water.
This generally avoids any debate about the possible interactions between the medicine and the accompanying drink because the truth is – some drinks can interfere with the performance of medication if consumed together.
The extent to which it can happen is variable, so mixing drugs and drinks – whether soft drinks or alcohol is better avoided.
In the case of soft drinks: when sodium benzoate from the drink mixes with vitamin C (in the form of ascorbic acid) and in the presence of heat, light and metallic ions – another material, benzene is formed.
This is worrying, since benzene is a carcinogen.
In specific reference to Vitamin C and drinks containing benzoic acid, Linda Crampton’s article has some further insight.
There have been studies in the US and Canada which have referenced this important question.
The essential point is – it is POSSIBLE that when you take a soft drink containing Benzoic acid like Fanta or Sprite – with Vitamin C, the combination CAN lead to the formation of Benzene (the harmful carcinogen) – but other elements are needed for this to happen – specifically heat, ultraviolet light and metallic ions.
The assumption is that when taking the drink, you are highly unlikely to be exposed to ALL the elements at the same time and so the risk of cancer development is low.
The sensible conclusion to make then is that if the quantity of benzoate in the soft drink is low enough (to allow preservation but prevent harm), then it is less likely to be converted to Benzene.
So since a risk exists (although judged low from the evidence we have seen), our answer to the question on whether soft drinks can be consumed with Vitamin C is NO.
It should be of concern to everyone whether our regulatory agencies can effectively monitor the activities of manufacturing organisations to ensure that safe standards and guidelines are implemented for the consumer’s benefit.
In the case we considered earlier, NAFDAC was reported to have conducted a routine monitoring check on NBC in December 2016.
It is important to note that the court found NAFDAC liable stating:
“…it is manifest that (NAFDAC) has been grossly irresponsible in its regulatory duties to the consumers of Fanta and Sprite…(they) have failed the citizens of this great nation by its certification as satisfactory for human consumption, products which in the United Kingdom failed sample test for human consumption and which become poisonous in the presence of Ascorbic acid….consumable products ought to be fit for human consumption irrespective of race, colour or creed. In spite of the fact that different countries have different limits for additives. The applicable limit for additives in Nigeria must be safe for human consumption when taken with other consumables then there must be a clear warning to consumers on the dangerous effect of taking the products with other consumables”.
NAFDAC was ordered to compel NBC to place a warning label advising against consumption of the drinks with Vitamin C.
We don’t know how this will end – but such labelling is what should be expected in terms of consumer rights and protection that allows informed decision and awareness of risks so sadly lacking in our systems.
There are other elements to the case including whether the items should have been exported in the first instance – but had they not, this story will not be told.
Our interest here is simply to explore the evidence to help our readers decide what they will do about consuming locally produced soft drinks.
In addition, regulators activities and manufacturers’ compliance to higher standards of health and safety of products because it is fair and good for business should be under scrutiny.
Will this change your mind about your can of soft drink? Share your thoughts below.
Edited by AskAwayHealth Team
All AskAwayHealth articles are written by practising Medical Practitioners on a wide range of health care conditions to provide evidence-based guidance and to help promote quality health care. The advice in our material is not meant to replace the management of your specific condition by a qualified health care practitioner.
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