Panera Bread has gone full Food Babe in their latest ad campaign. They state:

Sodium Benzoate is an artificial preservative found in sauces, jellies, and pickled foods. It’s also an active ingredient in fireworks. So to celebrate the removal of all artificial preservatives from Panera food, we brought Independence Day fireworks to Johnston City, IL, for the first time in 10 years.

The accompanying video opens with people in hazard suits handling sodium benzoate, which they state can be found in many foods as a preservative. They then ask, “But what if instead of doing harm sodium benzoate could be used to do good?” What harm are they referring to? That’s a good question.

This is, unfortunately, a clear example of fearmongering as a marketing campaign. Imply that some feature or ingredient is dangerous, and then proudly state that your product doesn’t have it. This leads the consumer to believe that other products do have it, and just to be safe they better avoid all competitors. In this case the deception is that sodium benzoate and other artificial preservatives “do harm.”

The new wrinkle in this marketing approach is the Food Babe tactic of implying that an ingredient is harmful because it is found in non-food items. She famously attacked Subway for using azodicarbonamide as a bleaching agent in their breads. This is a perfectly safe substance as used, but it also has a variety of industrial uses as a blowing agent. It is included in some plastics and rubbers, leading the Food Babe to call it the “Yoga mat chemical.” She therefore likened eating food made with azodicarbonamide with eating yoga mats.

This logic is nothing more than blatant chemistry illiteracy. First, when chemicals react with other chemicals their properties change. The properties of chlorine gas say exactly nothing about the properties of sodium chloride (table salt). Also, substances which are perfectly safe to consume may have a variety of industrial uses. Just look at a quick list of some of the uses of sodium chloride:

The chemical industry uses large amounts of sodium chloride salt to produce other chemicals. Chlorine and sodium hydroxide are electrolically produced from brine. Chlorine products are used in metal cleaners, paper bleach, plastics and water treatment. The chemical soda ash, which contains sodium, is used to manufacture glass, soaps, paper, and water softeners. Chemicals produced as a result of sodium chloride reactions are used in ceramic glazes, metallurgy, curing of hides, and photography.

Sodium benzoate

The fact that sodium benzoate can also be used in explosives is completely irrelevant to its safety as a food additive, and Panera should frankly be ashamed that they have based a marketing campaign on such anti-scientific fearmongering. What does the scientific evidence say about its safety?

Sodium benzoate is produced by a reaction of benzoic acid with sodium hydroxide, and is used as a food preservative and also in cosmetics. In an acidic environment it converts back to benzoic acid, which can inhibit the growth of bacteria, mold, and yeast. This significantly extends the shelf life of food and increases their safety.

Reviews of safety have concluded that in the amounts found in food, sodium benzoate has no adverse health effect. The FDA limits sodium benzoate in food products to 0.1% by weight. Most products contain much lower amounts.

Here is the World Health Organization’s summary:

In humans, the acute toxicity of benzoic acid and sodium benzoate is low. However, both substances are known to cause non-immunological contact reactions (pseudoallergy). This effect is scarce in healthy subjects; in patients with frequent urticaria or asthma, symptoms or exacerbation of symptoms was observed. A provisional tolerable intake of 5 mg/kg body weight per day can be derived, although benzoates at lower doses can cause non-immunological contact reactions (pseudoallergy) in sensitive persons. As there are no adequate studies available on inhalation exposure, a tolerable concentration for exposure by inhalation cannot be calculated.

The further note that sodium benzoate, because it is not fat soluble, does not accumulate in the body and is rapidly eliminated. So, like all substances, the dose makes the poison. At doses used as a preservative in food sodium benzoate is perfectly safe, is well below toxicity limits, and does not bioaccumulate. There are separate limits for skin exposure, because of its use in cosmetics, and in too high a concentration can cause a skin rash.

Sodium benzoate is also a fine powder. Like many fine powders, it can present a risk when dealing with it in an industrial context. Fine powders tend to disperse in the air and are dangerous if breathed in. They are also an explosion risk simply because of their relatively high surface area. But just about anything you eat, if purified and handled in massive quantities, is risky and says nothing about its safety as encountered in food.

As always, we also have to consider risks vs benefit. Sodium benzoate is added to food for a reason – it delays spoilage by inhibiting microbial growth. Food spoilage has two large adverse effects, increasing food waste and increasing the risk of foodborne disease. This is therefore a good example of fear over something which is not actually a risk leading to bad decisions which increase a real risk.

In my research I also found it interesting that some dubious sources are claiming that sodium benzoate is actually a natural health product. Selfhacked, for example, writes:

Sodium benzoate (NaB) actually is a derivative (or metabolite) of cinnamon. While not as promising, studies also show that potassium sorbate (sorbic acid) and sodium sulfite can suppress Th1-type immune responses, which has an anti-inflammatory effect.

Interestingly, sodium benzoate decreases cholesterol, too, in the same manner, that statins do – by inhibiting an enzyme called HMG-CoA reductase. It’s in this manner that it has an anti-inflammatory effect.

It’s amazing how you can weave either type of narrative with the exact same substance. Selfhacked emphasizes the fact that sodium benzoate is derived from cinnamon, and has anti-inflammatory and cholesterol lowering effects. Meanwhile, other sources are claiming that it is a horrible artificial toxin that should be completely avoided. Both extremes are overinterpreting the scientific evidence and ignoring the role of dose. Sodium benzoate, as used, is a benign preservative. It is neither a health hazard nor a panacea.

What is perhaps most disappointing about the Panera Bread campaign is the degree to which they have embraced fearmongering and meme-based advertising. The video is blatantly manipulative, which is not surprising in itself as it is advertising. However, when such manipulation promotes the fear of innocent and useful food ingredients this adds to the collective harm that internet “clean eating” fear warriors are doing.

Not properly preserving food causes real harm and waste that we cannot afford. We need to use the best science available as our guide, not internet guru memes.

Posted by Steven Novella

Founder and currently Executive Editor of Science-Based Medicine Steven Novella, MD is an academic clinical neurologist at the Yale University School of Medicine. He is also the president and co-founder of the New England Skeptical Society, the host and producer of the popular weekly science podcast, The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe, and the author of the NeuroLogicaBlog, a daily blog that covers news and issues in neuroscience, but also general science, scientific skepticism, philosophy of science, critical thinking, and the intersection of science with the media and society. Dr. Novella also contributes every Sunday to The Rogues Gallery, the official blog of the SGU.