I mention its use in Into the Vietnamese Kitchen, and you may notice it on some fish sauce labels. Sodium benzoate is a preservative that’s found in certain acidic foods (e.g., salad dressings, and pickles), medicines, and cosmetics. As a rule of thumb, I generally buy ingredients with the least amount of chemicals involved.
Looking back at Viet World Kitchen blog postings, I came across Singaporean-based food expert Chris Tan's fish sauce tasting conducted a few years back. He has a terrific palate and sent me his tasting notes. When rereading Chris’s comments, I noticed one fish sauce that he said tasted flat, a quality that he attributed to the presence of sodium benzoate. Indeed, there is a flabby, almost zingy, aftertaste that certain fish sauces have, especially when sodium benzoate is present. So that’s a negative for it being used in fish sauce – bad flavor!
I examined all the fish sauces in my pantry the other day and none of them had sodium benzoate. My collection included Viet Huong’s 3 Crabs and Phu Quoc brands, MegaChef, and Red Boat’s 35 and 40 dam (a notation of concentrated flavor, the higher the number, the better). Viet Huong combines Vietnamese and Thai fish sauces into their blending process. MegaChef is aged Thai nam pla. Red Boat (full disclosure: they advertise on this site) is pure Vietnamese nuoc mam from Phu Quoc.
These are premium fish sauces that cost a little more than the competition and they’re worth it. Use them for dipping sauces and they'll make your food shine. Or, sprinkle some on a bowl of hot rice. I just use them for all my cooking and sauce needs as they make my food taste really good.
You can find Viet Huong at many Asian markets. MegaChef has yet to be distributed in the States so you have to be in Thailand to get it! With regard to obtaining Red Boat fish sauce, order it from Amazon.
Safety of sodium benzoate?
Manufacturers have used sodium benzoate (and its close relative benzoic acid) for a century to prevent the growth of microorganisms in acidic foods. The substances occur naturally in many plants and animals. They appear to be safe for most people, though they cause hives, asthma, or other allergic reactions in sensitive individuals.
Another problem occurs when sodium benzoate is used in beverages that also contain ascorbic acid (vitamin C). The two substances, in an acidic solution, can react together to form small amounts of benzene, a chemical that causes leukemia and other cancers. Though the amounts of benzene that form are small, leading to only a very small risk of cancer, there is no need for consumers to experience any risk. In the early 1990s the FDA had urged companies not to use benzoate in products that also contain ascorbic acid, but in the 2000s companies were still using that combination. A lawsuit filed in 2006 by private attorneys ultimately forced Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, and other soft-drink makers in the U.S. to reformulate affected beverages, typically fruit-flavored products.
So aside from an off taste in fish sauce, there are potential ill effects from sodium benzoate, especially when it is combined with absorbic acid (vitamin C). The risk level seems to be low but why risk your health at all if you don’t have to? I’d read the fish sauce labels carefully and try ones that don’t contain sodium benzoate. Or, don’t drink fish sauce like you would a can of soda pop!
Any urban legends to report on sodium benzoate in fish sauce? Slap them into the comments below!
Related posts and links
- Fish sauce post archives (vegetarian fish sauce, Phu Quoc fish sauce, Viet Huong (3 Crabs) taste off, fish sauce buying tips)
- Sodium Benzoate + Vitamin C in sodas affect mitochondrial DNA (fish sauce is not the same as soda but this worth a read)
- Center for Science in the Public Interest's quick low-down on additives in foods