A common preservative found in many soft drinks can cause serious cell damage and fatal illness, according to a UK study revealed last night.
Research indicates that sodium benzoate, an ingredient in many soft drinks and sauces, has the ability to deactivate parts of DNA and eventually cause diseases such as Parkinson's and cirrhosis of the liver.
Sodium benzoate is indicated in Australia as "Preservative (211)" on ingredients lists, and is included in Sunkist, Diet Coke, Sprite, Pepsi Max, and many other drinks and condiments.
Peter Piper, a professor of molecular biology and biotechnology who has been studying sodium benzoate for eight years at Sheffield University, found that the preservative seriously damages living cells.
"These chemicals have the ability to cause severe damage to DNA in the mitochondria to the point that they totally inactivate it: they knock it out altogether," Prof Piper told The Independent on Sunday.
The findings came from laboratory tests conducted with sodium benzoate on living yeast cells. Prof Piper was alarmed by the chemical's destructive impact on the "power station" of the cells known as the mitochondria.
"The mitochondria consumes the oxygen to give you energy and if you damage it — as happens in a number if diseased states — then the cell starts to malfunction very seriously," Prof Piper continued.
"There is a whole array of diseases that are now being tied to damage to this DNA — Parkinson's and quite a lot of neuro-degenerative diseases, but above all the whole process of ageing."
Sodium benzoate occurs in small amounts naturally in berries, but is used in large quantities to prevent mould in soft drinks.
The additive has been the subject of controversy for some time. Last year it was revealed that a chemical reaction between sodium benzoate and vitamin C creates benzene, a carcinogenic chemical.
"The food industry will say these compounds have been tested and they are complete safe," Prof Piper said. "By the criteria of modern safety testing, the safety tests were inadequate. Like all things, safety testing moves forward and you can conduct a much more rigorous safety test than you could 50 years ago."
He advised parents to think twice about letting their children drink products containing the chemical.
"My concern is for children who are drinking large amounts," he said.
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