Diet Coke

Reporter: Andrew Bourke

It's supposed to Coca Cola's healthy alternative - Diet Coke. But according to a recent study in the United Kingdom, nothing could be further from the truth. Whether we like it or not, and lets face it, most people do, Coca Cola has been part of our culture for more than a hundred years and its the worlds largest beverage manufacturer. But its the preservative that keeps many of its products 'fresh' that has critics, and not just kids, spitting the dummy.

Sodium Benzoate or preservative 211 as it's known is an additive used in some of our most popular soft drinks, Diet Coke and it's competitor- Pepsi Max. It's found naturally in some fruits, but is used in larger doses in a number of soft drinks to stop them going mouldy.

Diet Coke

Diet Coke with Lemon

Dr Pepper

Diet Dr Pepper


Diet Fanta


Diet sprite

It's even used in so-called child friendly drinks such as Ribena and Lucozade. But critics believe it can be poison. Professor Geoff Skurry from The University of Western Sydney says "The study in England where they show that there's some DNA damage, this is of great concern because we're just finding out now that some chemicals in foods can damage the DNA which is part of our inheritance. The genetic material we pass onto our children so there's a great concern."

Coca Cola in the United Kingdom has taken the research conducted at Southampton University so seriously that they've already begun withdrawing sodium benzoate from Diet Coke. By the end of the year no can or bottle of Diet Coke in the UK will contain the preservative. But here in Australia it's a very different story, Coca Cola have no plans to remove 211 from their products.

The Southampton University research shows that sodium benzoate can lead to hyperactivity in children. While a study at England's Sheffield University found the additive could switch off parts of DNA and could be linked to Parkinsons disease and cirrhosis of the liver. "The risk of removing this as a preservative could in fact make people quite ill." Lydia Buchtmann from Food Standards Australia and New Zealand says levels of sodium benzonate in soft drinks are well below world health organisation guidelines.

She believes it's a natural product thats a necessity, as long as the levels consumed are kept under control. "There's a little bit of concern in some of the younger consumers and we're certainly working with the industry to reduce levels here, but generally at the low levels it is for most of the population its perfectly safe" adds Lydia.

"Our food regulators are supposed to both protect consumers and support the food industry. Its a conflict of interest and at the moment they've chosen to protect the food industry." Sue Dengate from the Food Intolerance Network backs the UK research and believes the food standards authority is a toothless tiger. She wants consumers to go straight to the source.

"I think the message that we're getting very clearly is that food manufacturers don't care about the Australian public and I think the Australian public should get very angry about that and tell the manufacturers what they think" adds Sue. "Coke and Pepsi in the United Kingdom have removed sodium benzoate because of studies there showing it has a bad effect on kids, but they're not doing it here. I think its totally irresponsible" says Geoff Skurry.