Benzene in Soft Drinks and other Beverage Products

Health Canada has investigated soft drinks and other beverages for the presence of benzene, following reports in the United States that trace levels of benzene had been found in these products.

As a result of its investigation, Health Canada has concluded that soft drinks and other beverages available for sale in Canada are safe. This conclusion is based both on these findings and on the cooperative actions taken by industry to reformulate products where necessary. Please see the Information Update.

In the following sections, you will find information about benzene and Health Canada's investigation.

About Benzene

Benzene is a known human carcinogen. It is naturally occurring but is also manufactured for use in the industrial sector. We are exposed to benzene mainly through inhalation (e.g., vehicle exhaust and cigarette smoke) and to a much lesser extent through the ingestion of food and water.

Trace amounts of benzene can form in beverages when ascorbic acid (Vitamin C) combines with either sodium benzoate or potassium benzoate. Benzoates are common preservatives sometimes added to beverages to prevent bacterial growth.

The presence of ascorbic acid and benzoates alone does not lead to the formation of benzene. Certain additional conditions are required for trace levels of benzene to form, including heat, ultraviolet light and metallic ions in the mixture. Therefore, a beverage containing ascorbic acid and benzoates will not necessarily contain any detectable levels of benzene.

Health Canada's Investigation

When Health Canada investigates the health significance of contaminants in food products, information on the levels of contaminant present in the food product of interest must be gathered. Either Health Canada or the Canadian Food Inspection Agency gathers samples of the food and analyses them to measure the levels of contaminant. In 2006, Health Canada conducted a survey of benzene in beverage products. This survey was triggered by concerns raised in the US after an independent study found trace levels of benzene in some soft drinks. Several other food regulatory agencies worldwide (UK FSA, FSANZ, US FDA) also initiated activities to monitor benzene levels in beverage products available within their own countries.

Health Canada has committed to working with the beverage industry on this issue, and with the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. As part of this overall commitment, Health Canada has undertaken follow-up testing of the same products tested in 2006, as well as testing of new products found in the Canadian market. This was done to ensure that measures taken to minimize benzene levels in soft drinks have been effective. Health Canada collected and analysed samples of various soft drinks and other beverages containing ascorbic acid and benzoates.

  • A follow-up survey of same and newer products took place in 2007 to ensure that benzene levels remain safe for consumers.

Laboratory method development

In 2007, Health Canada scientists updated the laboratory method for the determination of benzene in beverages allowing them to detect benzene levels at lower levels than was previously possible.

2007 Follow-up Survey of benzene in soft drinks

The 2007 survey, which builds on the initial 2006 survey, covered 139 products, of which 110 were the same products as those analysed in the 2006 survey. The remaining 29 products were either new products on the market or were unavailable for testing in 2006.

Beverage products containing ascorbic acid and benzoates were collected. The majority of products were soft drinks but some low-alcohol beverages and cocktail mixers were also collected. The laboratory method described above was used to measure any benzene level present. Results are provided in 'A Follow-Up Survey of Benzene in Soft Drinks and Other Beverage Products'.

Using the 2007 improved analytical method to measure benzene in soft drinks and other beverages, Health Canada's follow-up survey found that most of the products tested had levels well below the Canadian guideline of five micrograms per litre (5 µg/L) of benzene in drinking water. Compared to the results of Health Canada's 2006 survey, the average benzene levels in most products remained low.

The 2007 survey found that levels of benzene in three of the products tested were above the Canadian drinking water guideline for benzene. Health Canada's health risk assessment determined that the benzene levels in these three products do not pose a risk to Canadians. Two of these products are meant to be diluted prior to consumption, resulting in a lower exposure to benzene. In addition, the manufacturer of one of these products has reformulated their product to prevent benzene formation. Health Canada has analysed a sample of the reformulated product and confirmed that the measures used to mitigate benzene were effective.

Health Canada and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency will continue to work with the beverage industry to ensure that the formation of benzene during manufacturing is minimized and to take all necessary steps to help Canadians maintain and improve their health.

Conclusions from the 2007 Health Risk Assessment

Health Canada evaluated the health risk that could result from exposure to benzene in some soft drinks. Based on the current scientific evidence and on actions taken during the investigation, Health Canada concluded that soft drinks available for sale in Canada are safe.

Health Canada's Follow-up with Industry

Health Canada informed the producers of beverages found to contain benzene at levels greater than 5 μg/L of the survey results. In addition to product reformulations that took place in 2006, some other manufacturers responded to the 2007 survey results by reformulating their products to further eliminate benzene formation.

The food industry has also developed guidance to minimize benzene formation during processing: Refreshments Canada Guidance Document to Mitigate the Potential for Benzene Formation in Beverages.

Health Canada and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency will continue to work with the beverage industry to ensure that the formation of benzene during manufacturing is minimized and to take all necessary steps to help Canadians maintain and improve their health.

International Collaboration

Health Canada's Food Directorate has worked with its international regulatory counterparts, including the US Food and Drug Administration (US FDA), the United Kingdom Food Standards Agency (UK FSA) and in particular Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) to exchange information about survey results of benzene in soft drinks and beverages conducted in other countries, exposure assessment and measures taken to ensure the continued safety of the Canadian food supply.

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