A High Court judge in Lagos, Nigeria has issued a ruling that Coca-Cola products could be “poisonous.” The ruling was controversial and has sent shock waves of alarm throughout the country. According to Dupe Atoki, Director General of Nigeria’s Consumer Protection Council, “Fanta, Sprite and Coca-Cola have arguably and consistently been the most widely consumed beverages in Nigeria.” Because of the popularity of these beverages in children and adults, consumers are understandably worried; as a result, many are boycotting the drinks.
The court ruling, more specifically, stated that the beverages contained high levels of benzoic acid and additives that could be dangerous when taken with vitamin C. The combination of benzoic acid and ascorbic acid (vitamin C) creates benzene, a known carcinogen, or cancer-causing agent. Justice Adedayo Oyebanji ordered the Nigerian Bottling Company to put warning labels on Fanta and Sprite bottles about this risk. The National Agency For Food and Drug Administration and Control was also fined for not ensuring health standards.The lawsuit came about in the first place when a Lagos businessman tried to export Nigerian-produced Coca-Cola products to the UK and was denied by the UK because of the danger. In court, the Nigeria Bottling Company argued that its products weren’t meant to be exported. The judge, however, ruled that the products should be safe for Nigerians, so the matter of exportation was irrelevant.
Whether the drinks are truly dangerous is uncertain. The levels of benzoic acid deemed safe differ from country to country and the levels in the products from the Nigerian Bottling Company are within the global levels set by the Codex Alimentarius Commission. Benzoic acid is a preservative and there is some logical argument that a country’s climate should be considered when setting these levels. The drinks themselves are not dangerous or poisonous, other than typical health concerns about soft drinks. The issue is only when taken in combination with vitamin C. A mixed drink with Sprite and orange juice, for example, would potentially have an ill health effect, long-term. It would take more than a few drinks, though, for cancer to occur. There have been no illnesses or deaths directly traced to Coca-Cola products due to the benzoic acid combination with vitamin C.
Coca-Cola has said in response, “All our products are safe and strictly adhere to regulations in the countries where they are sold.” They are hoping to see the ruling overturned in appeal.