Transcript of Episode 4, Part 1: the strange case of fanta, sprite and benzoic acid

This is a transcript of episode 4, part 1: The strange case of Fanta, Sprite and Benzoic acid in Nigeria: a scientific analysis- Dr Olumayokun Olajide 

Read more and listen at the strange case of fanta, sprite and benzoic acid.

This is, in which I, Abdulghaniy Kayode Otukogbe, engage with Dr. Olumayokun Olajide of the department of pharmacy at the University of Huddersfield on the issue of the levels of benzoic acid and ascorbic acid contents in soft drinks in Nigeria. Dr Olajide is a senior lecturer in the area of pharmacology and he had his PHD from the University of Ibadan, Nigeria and worked there as a lecturer. He also worked as a lecturer at Obafemi Awolowo University in Nigeria and London Metropolitan University in the UK. He was a post-doctoral research fellow at the University of Munich in Germany.

Abdulghaniy: Hello,

Dr. Olajide: Hello.

I know when I was growing up sometimes some people use alcohol to make it (anti-malaria herbal medicine), some people use water and some people use soft drinks; now it is the soft drink aspect that I am quite interested in, because they used to use either 7 Up or Sprite made by Coca-Cola. And recently in the news in Nigeria, there has been issues on Sprite and Fanta about the levels of their benzoic acid, ascorbic acid, so what’s going on there?

Dr. Olajide: Well, see, our practices in terms of what we consume in Nigeria are very complicated and I was having a discussion with a friend I think about two days ago, about this NBC (Nigerian Bottling Company) saga and I did say to him, I asked one very simple question and this question was “why do you think cancer is on the rise in Nigeria?” Have you thought about it in terms of genetics? You know most Nigerians are not supposed to have cancer? You know why is it suddenly on the rise? Why didn’t we have this situation like thirty years ago, forty years ago?

It’s because something is changing and that is, the regulatory environment in Nigeria has become very loose, no one is informing the other about the dangers of anything. Now coming back to the use of all these things to [Abdulganiy “extract”] extract! That is the word.

I tell you something, you know it is based on one principle and the principle is water and other solvents, we call them solvents. Alcohol is a solvent, when you put things in these (solvents), especially plants in these solvents; water is a solvent, alcohol is a solvent, what they tend to do is, their (the solvents) job is to extract, is to bring out the principles of the active ingredients of whatever it is that is in your plants or your herbs and then you drink it, believe it or not it is the same principle, people may not know it but when you put the mango bark in 7 Up or Sprite or whatever it is, what they are actually trying to do is to take advantage of the function of water, the water components of the Seven Up or Sprite or the Fanta or whatever it is just so you know, just to bring out the active principles.

Now, there is one question we do not think about, and that is why we got this NBC problem. We don’t think about it a lot and that is a concept we discuss in pharmacological cycles, it is called “interactions”.

It maybe when we talk about interactions, that maybe chemical interactions, physiological and so on and so forth now we have different likely scenarios when you do that, the two you know whatever is in your 7 Up or your Sprite or your Fanta may interact chemically with the components in the mango bark and result in something else, okay, that is one.

The other scenario is this, when you take your herbal extracts with your Coke or your Sprite or your Fanta, they may actually come together in the body and interact in the body to produce different effects, that is physiological interaction, that is, these two things would produce an effect that may antagonise each other or that may actually potentiate each other. So, if for instance, the caffeine in Coke is, you know, produces stimulant effects, if the mango (tree) bark also contains a stimulant, you have a higher degree of stimulatory effect. So, that is physiological interactions, but many people do not understand this.

Now as far as you know, the mango (tree) bark is concerned to my knowledge, I don’t think there is, I mean, we do not have any report of any active ingredient in the mango (tree) bark that produces any kind of interaction. However, these are the areas we need to start looking at actively, that is, we should start asking ourselves the things we take what do they contain? Now if we do know what they contain, we need to ask ourselves when these things are now taken alongside other things would they produce interactions or not?

Then, we start to think about safety, now when we talk about safety and this is where it becomes a bit complicated, people think safety is just about death or toxicity is just about death, no it could mean the organs of the body being destroyed gradually; it could mean that you know diseases will happen like in the case of cancer; it could mean that you know certain functions of the body will be impaired like reproductive functions, believe it or not.

So, you know when we say that this thing is not safe or it’s not safe to put A and B or take A and B together, we are not just talking about people doing that and dying, that is a different kind of toxicity. But we are also saying: how does that? I mean, how does the consumption of A or B or Aand B together affect your health and wellbeing? Okay, so, if the consumption of either A or B or their consumption together is going to affect your wellbeing, then we say it’s not safe.

So, mango (tree) bark and alcohol we do not have any documented evidence as to whether that will produce any effect but it is still worth investigating, but investigating it means that we need to know what people do. So, you just told me that it could be put in soft drinks; alcohol we understand we do that in the lab, we use alcohol to do our extraction. So, we either use water, it is a universal solvent or we use alcohol; you know it is pure alcohol. But then what we do is – after we have done the extraction, we get rid of the alcohol, we make sure that we apply some form of heat or some form of chemical or physical processes to get rid of the alcohol. So, when I am giving you an extract from a plant, what I am giving is the pure extract, there is no alcohol in it and the reason is – alcohol is a drug, it is a pharmacological substance.

So, when you give someone an extract containing alcohol, it may just be that the substance itself will produce the same effect as alcohol, so, when the two of them combine or interact in the body, they will produce a bigger effect. So, we try scientifically, we try to get rid of that and that is why most herbal products you find in the market now they are actually in form of capsules. Yeah people still take tinctures and stuff like that are still suspended in alcohol, but then, that is with the knowledge of what is in the alcohol and the fact that you know there would be no interactions.

Now, concerning what is going on, [Abdulganiy: “Sprite, Fanta”]. I try as much as possible not to dabble into the socio-political discourse in Nigeria, because what I have realised about this is, because there are vested interests, economic interests and people do not want… people try to take sides. But what I am going to say, is going to be purely scientific and you know I read this story and I was a bit disappointed, because I think the regulatory environment in Nigeria is still very loose and you know the regulatory environment is, unfortunately, it is not using state of the art scientific information, unfortunately.

If the regulatory environment uses the state of the art scientific information, I do not personally as a scientist, I do not believe we should have an argument as to whether benzoic acid in, I mean, being used as a preservative in a drink containing ascorbic acid, that shouldn’t even be an issue to be honest and it should, you know, whether the levels are high or low shouldn’t even be an issue. The pure and simple fact is this – ascorbic acid will, okay, this is chemical process, will produce a decarboxylation of benzoic acid, that is, it is a pure scientific principle. This is O-level chemistry and when it does that, guess what is produced? Benzene is known, benzene is a carcinogen.

Abdulghaniy: Alright.

Dr.Olajide: Yes, as a matter of fact, substances which are known to be derivatives of benzene are known carcinogens. I will give you an example, you know the smoke from suya, you know when suya is, and that contains a lot of… [Abdulghaniy: “That is like barbecue, our own Nigerian barbecue.”]

Dr.Olajide: Yeah, you know that produces a lot of aromatic substances with similarities to the benzene structure and that is why it is not advisable to inhale the smoke from the Suya barbecue, it is not advisable.

As a matter of fact I turn my back to the barbeque stand when I make a barbecue here. I make sure that the area is well ventilated and so it is the same thing we are talking about here. Benzene is a known carcinogen, now the question… the argument is how much is too much? With carcinogens you don’t want to say how much is too much? You will want to talk about exposure, so, let’s say an individual loves taking Fanta and that is why I said the regulatory environment is scientifically still loose in Nigeria. A person loves taking Fanta , he takes Fanta every day, then you begin to imagine the amount of benzene the person gets exposed to on a daily basis because when these two come together benzoic acid and ascorbic acid, that is what happens.

The other thing we need to think about in Nigeria is, that is why we do have an argument with level; well, the levels in our drinks are safe, are they really safe? The temperature in Nigeria, you know fundamental chemistry will teach you that the rate at which reactions occur will increase with heat. Now I have been to places in Nigeria where the drink you are being served is so hot and people still take them, so, you need to think about this, we as a people need to think about this. It shouldn’t be about the money it should be about public health and I do believe that. You know I do not know the processes that go into the manufacture of Sprite or Fanta or whatever it is that NBC produces, but I do know that if they are declaring on the label or whatever it is that this thing contains benzoic acid and ascorbic acid, I would be worried and people shouldn’t say ‘oh well we haven’t seen any effects’, how do we know that? I mean, in Nigeria we haven’t really done enough in terms of risk factors, environmental risk factors behind several conditions.

And I still say this, I discussed this with colleagues in Nigeria and that is – has anyone started to think about the scientific reasons behind the sudden rise in cancer in Nigeria? Has anyone thought about it? It didn’t just start happening, it is not a spontaneous thing; something must have triggered it.

Yeah, you know our lifestyle has changed, but how much of our environmental factors I mean are we looking at? You know, what are the roles of environmental factors? And when I say environmental factors, I am also talking about food – the things we consume.

Now, (what) we are thinking about, the focus is not on NBC; what about the other smaller beverage producing companies? How are we sure that they are even complying at all? How are we sure? Because these are smaller companies, you know, these one will say I am producing; the last time I visited Nigeria, I saw all sorts of soft drinks, especially soft drinks from orange, orange based soft drinks containing ascorbic acid. You know NBC is huge, they have the resources to plug all these holes, all these safety holes if there are any at all, but what about these smaller, this small scale or medium scale companies who will do everything possible to cut corners to reduce cost and overhead. And so that is what I am talking about, and I was discussing with another colleague and I said we consume a lot of poison in Nigeria unknowingly.

Someone was talking about even the palm oil, you know a lot of things are going on, so we shouldn’t just focus on NBC, we should focus on the general regulatory environment, you know the things that people consume – how do these things affect the people’s health? What do these things really contain? And if we know what they contain, what are the levels? What are the risks? How often do people get exposed to all these?

Talking about Fanta, yes NBC may say that the levels are safe, that is acute toxicity, that is if you drank one bottle you are fine but we do know that we get exposed to all these benzene based molecules, you know it maybe once it maybe twice, the problem is when we get exposed over and over and over again so you talking about someone takes Fanta almost all the time, as a younger person I used to, because my mum sold soft drinks. I used to take soft drinks almost on a daily basis, so if a person takes Fanta on a daily basis or any other ascorbic or any other beverage containing ascorbic acid or benzoic on a daily basis for a long time, say a few years, I will be worried.

Abdulghaniy: So, but the argument the NBC is bringing forth is that: one, I think the person shouldn’t have exported it to the UK; that is where the problem is, in the UK it is 150 milligrams per kg but in Nigeria it is two hundred and fifty milligrams per kg there, if there is ascorbic acid in it, without ascorbic acid it could go up to 300 to 600 milligrams. Yeah but my own elementary mathematics tells me that the difference between 150 milligrams and 200 milligrams is about 33%; and then secondly, it seems the argument of geographical location is now coming into this, which is a bit unique to me because we seem to use this same paracetamol, drink the same drinks and suddenly geography is now playing a key role.

Dr. Olajide: Thank you and that is why I did say that I worry about the regulatory environment in Nigeria, sometimes I go like ‘how did people come up with these values or these arguments?’ Because number one – that argument is lame, that is a lame argument. I expected better from NBC, I expected that they would have in-house food experts who should have been in a position to give a better, stronger, more robust, more scientifically sound justification. But unfortunately they failed there.

What’s the difference between the UK and Nigeria? But I think what they unknowingly exposed about the mentality of an average Nigerian entrepreneur is this, as long as it is Nigeria it doesn’t matter, why would you know; you did say that, well, the reason there was a problem was because they were trying to export the Fanta from Nigeria to the UK. What’s the difference between the human system or the human being in Nigeria and the human being in the UK? I would say that there is no difference in terms of poison. So, if the UK are saying this is our limit, then I still struggle in my head with why Nigeria will say this is our limit.

Okay, you did talk about the climate, but I think as a matter of fact, it is in a country like Nigeria that we should have lower limit because of the heat. I still try to get my head round that argument, let’s actually take the climate out of it. Let’s assume the climate in Nigeria and the climate in United Kingdom are similar, I do not expect that someone will say that; I do not blame the NBC here, I blame the regulatory agencies, I mean if we have a regulatory agency that is trying to set a limit that is not global! Well, they have quoted Codex and some very interesting sources like that, but when was the last time the regulatory requirements were reviewed. I don’t know or do they even review our regulatory laws in Nigeria? Especially as it relates to food and drugs, I don’t know.

How much of our regulatory laws are their requirements based on science? The other question is – how many of these regulatory requirements are based on current knowledge, up to date knowledge? I mean I have not verified this but another colleague, because we have been talking about this, another colleague was telling me that as a matter of fact I need to verify that, as a matter of fact UK might have changed things in such a way that benzoic acid is not found in drinks; why? What did the regulatory authority see? What new information have they got?

And when we talk about safe levels, I am a pharmacologist, I don’t believe safe levels, especially with food and drinks should be taken lightly, because you do not know how often an individual gets exposed. You can tell me, it’s unlike paracetamol where you could take two tablets every six hours and you are then expected to comply, with food people are more at liberty to take things as many times as they like; if it’s a beverage or food that contains the so called safe levels, if this person takes these things over a long period of time, how would that affect him or her?

The other thing we are talking about is benzene, every toxicologist knows what benzene is, it is a carcinogen, it causes cancer and to me I think the authorities in Nigeria are taking this lightly but have they started looking at it from a public health point of view?  Have they started asking very difficult scientific questions, very difficult medical questions, I doubt it?

Abdulghaniy: I mean the present Minister of Health in Nigeria, Professor Adewole, from what I read in the media said it’s a moral issue, that at least let them talk about it from a moral perspective, and I was asking myself, and I say for you as a scientist ‘is it a moral issue or an ethical issue?’

Dr. Olajide: I think it’s an ethical issue, I think the problem is, Professor Adewole is a well-respected obstetrician/gynaecologist. He knows, he has been involved in health issues in Nigeria for a very long time. But I don’t believe, I mean as a scientist, I don’t believe this should be a moral issue, I think we should be looking at ethical issues here.

I mean are these food companies doing the right things, are they cutting, are they pushing boundaries? Yeah, maybe that is why he said it’s a moral issue, they have not broken any law and that’s the truth. If the NAFDAC are saying the limit is 150 (250), they have not really broken any law and if you know these beverages contain under 150 (250) they have really not broken any law and that is why it is bigger than NBC.

I started with this, the regulatory environment, the regulatory environment is too loose, it’s too lax, it’s like I still see it in spite of the fact that they are doing a great deal but I still feel we have got a very long way to go, especially with food. Maybe with drugs a lot is being done, there is so much control but this is the point we miss as a public, as a consuming public, there are foods of the so called food items, especially when they are processed or if they are processed there are so many so called food items that are… that maybe are as dangerous as any drug, or that maybe even more dangerous than any drug but we see food as yeah, well, it’s food it can’t kill. Well, its food, yeah it’s fine or it is a food product, you know it contains ascorbic acid, it contains orange extract and so on and so forth. And so we tend to look at this from a very relaxed point of view but that is wrong. As a matter of fact you know with drugs you may see the toxic effect almost immediately but with food it’s subtle, it is over a long period of time.

Have you noticed something again because I pay attention to all these, every time I go on the news, online news media in Nigeria or social media, I read about people with renal problems, kidney problems and I am like as a younger person I grew up in Nigeria this wasn’t happening. What is going on? What is going on? Many Nigerians are now going to India and I am like this was strange, I mean this was something that was unheard of when I was a teenager, you know my scientific mind will go like ‘has something changed?’ Yes, something has changed, what has changed? We need to find out, and I mean Nigeria has entered into the league of processed things, processed soft drinks, of course soft drinks have to be processed, processed this processed that.

Yeah, a lot of things are processed but we don’t ask questions, we don’t read. If you walk into Tescos most times you see people and they are like ‘what is there?’ ‘What is there?’ But we don’t do that in Nigeria. we just buy, especially if that thing is seen as new thing that the rich are… you know yeah it is a sign of social status, or the new thing if you have not taken it, you are not seen as having arrived [Abdulganiy: ”belonging”], but the question is most of these things contain substances that in other countries people do not even touch, most of the times, these are things that the public are educated about, they are still on the shelves but you know when you use this, you know these are the risks. You know we have got robust information but in Nigeria if it is on the shelf it’s fine. So, I think it’s the regulatory environment.

Abdulghaniy: Yes, the average person is probably thinking well I don’t have the power on regulation but, I mean public education.

Dr. Olajide: Yeah, without any doubts, I am going to say something that would be bit harsh, because I am going to direct this at my own immediate constituency: researchers. I mean, in Nigeria we do research for the sake of promotion; we want to publish papers, and we want to get promoted. We do not do research to address public health issues, research that would not necessarily benefit us but research that would just help to educate the public. And even when we do such research, they are sponsored by the big companies and they want us to do research that would rubber stamp on what they want the public to know.

I am sorry to say but I think researchers in Nigeria should do more not just to publish or perish, but to educate the public, so, the average Nigerian public is enlightened. Let us be honest, we have got social media, we have got blogs and all that and I would expect scientists to engage with all these platforms to inform the public. It doesn’t necessarily have to be with the government, we can’t leave everything to the government, because the government of the day will have other priorities, but as scientists, as researchers, as health care providers or professionals, our priorities should be different. Our priorities should actually be public health.

So, with this issue now, I am waiting to see a robust response, a robust explanation from the Nigerian scientific community, especially the food experts, the food scientists. I expect them to come out and say this is what we feel, okay and whatever information I have got is based on my knowledge as a pharmacologist, as someone who studies the effect of chemicals on the human body, but they should be able to provide more information about these substances. What is their suitability? What happens when they are together? They have got information that they need to pass on to the public.

And I believe that the Nigerian public which I consider to be very intelligent, well informed, they will get the message. And if anyone decides to use substance A or food A or food B, then they will be doing it with information, it will be a choice like cigarette, it will be a choice like alcohol. Of course in this country (the UK) for instance, if you bought cigarette you saw all the warnings, apart from that people write about cigarette. So, if you are smoking, you are an informed smoker; if you are drinking, you are an informed person, you are not just doing it because you do not know, you are doing it with knowledge and you are ready to live with the consequences.

You can read and listen to part 2 of the interview here.

This is an Edusounds production. You can listen to our podcasts on educational issues that relate to Nigeria on or on Mixcloud by searching for EdusoundsNg or follow us on Twitter, Facebook or SoundCloud at EdusoundsNg, Thank you.






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