Many consumers believe they're making a healthful choice when they opt for diet sodas, fruit drinks or flavored waters instead of sugary colas. But not so fast. Artificial sweeteners such as aspartame have come under fire due to their own health concerns... fruit drinks contain far more sugar or artificial sweeteners and dyes than fruit... and now, the icing on the cake, traces of the cancer-causing chemical benzene have been discovered in some beverages.

To get the lowdown on what we drink and how healthful or unhealthful it really is, I spoke with Mark Kestin, PhD, MPH, professor of nutrition and exercise science at Bastyr University in Kenmore, Washington. He told me that the most healthful choice is to stick with still water, mineral water or herbal teas. Not surprisingly, it's not a good idea to sip drinks spiked with sugar, artificial chemicals or carcinogens.

why benzene?

Despite assurances from the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) that there's not "that much" benzene in beverages, I can't help but be concerned that there's any at all. Benzene, a Class A carcinogenic, is linked to a higher risk of developing leukemia. When a beverage contains the preservative benzoate (listed as sodium benzoate or potassium benzoate on the label) and vitamin C (ascorbic acid), benzene can form when it is exposed to heat and/or light.

The federal standard for tap water is a maximum of 5 parts benzene per billion parts water. The FDA detected benzene that exceeded this limit in five out of 100 beverages tested...

*       AquaCal Strawberry Flavored Water Beverage

*       Crush Pineapple

*       Crystal Light Sunrise Classic Orange

*       Giant Light Cranberry Juice Cocktail

*       Safeway Select Diet Orange

Revelations of benzene contamination prompted British health authorities to immediately remove drinks with elevated levels from store shelves in the UK. As usual, the FDA took a more conservative approach, informing companies of their findings and leaving them to take action, while insisting to the public that the potential for significant exposure in the population did not warrant further action at the time. Not everyone accepts that, however, since benzene is a cumulative toxin that can build up in the body in tiny bits over time. And the contamination in some beverages is not so tiny -- the level of benzene in Safeway Select Diet Orange was 79 parts per billion!


It is critical to understand that the issue is not simply buying the products with benzene already developed in them. It can develop in any product that has sodium benzoate or benzoate of soda in them. Since the key to benzene creation is heat and light, any product containing sodium benzoate and others can turn into benzene if stored improperly once you get it home. Don't store it where it's hot and don't store it for long periods of time. If you must have it, buy it, refrigerate it and drink it promptly.

Better yet... drink more water and save the sodas and other non-natural beverages for an occasional treat.