So you’ve ditched the chips and dip and high-fat, high-calorie munchies in a move toward a healthier lifestyle. Good for you. As you peruse the grocery aisles for alternative snacks you stumble upon hummus – a creamy dip made of chickpeas, olive oil and spices used with raw vegetables or to spread on whole wheat crackers. Not all hummus is as healthy as it seems; some manufacturers add preservatives to extend hummus’ shelf life.
Food manufacturers mostly use sodium benzoate in acidic foods: think carbonated soft drinks (carbonic acid), fruit juice (citric acid), salad dressings (vinegar) and condiments. The preservative extends shelf-life by preventing bacteria and fungi growth. Sodium benzoate goes by several names. Look for benzoate of soda, benzoate sodium, sodium benzoic acid, benzoic acid sodium salt and sodium benzoate flakes on the food label.
Citric acid adds tanginess to foods. It’s really vitamin C — used as a natural preservative in hummus, ice cream, fruit drinks and condiments. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) generally recognizes citric acid as safe for consumption. Citric acid goes by other names, including hydrogen citrate, 2-hydroxy-1,2,3-propanetricarboxylic acid, citric acid anhydrous, 2-hydroxypropane-1,2,3-tricarboxylic acid, citric acid powder, b-hydroxytricarballylic acid and citro.
Why would anyone put gasoline’s primary ingredient in food? The answer is they don’t, well, not directly. When sodium benzoate combines with citric acid it creates a chemical reaction that forms benzene, a carcinogen most concentrated in auto emissions. Benzene concentrations are highest at gas stations and hazardous waste plants. But trace amounts might be in your hummus too.
Although The Center for Science in the Public Interest reminds consumers that manufacturers have used benzene for centuries to prevent microorganisms in food and it appears to be safe, it causes hives and respiratory distress in sensitive individuals. Children who are exposed to the chemical may display attention-deficient hyperactivity.
A division of the U.S. Public Health Service asserted in 2005 that long-term benzene exposure causes cancer, specifically leukemia. However, the health effects of prolonged benzene contaminants in food and beverages, which are likely trace amounts, are not entirely understood. Following several consumer lawsuits that prevailed, the FDA is taking a closer look at the issue.
References and ResourcesLabel Watch: Hummus
Eco-Us.net; Toxicological Profile for Benzene; U.S. Public Health Service; 2005
Consumer’s Union; Benzene in Soft Drinks; "Consumer Reports"; 2006