Tiny amounts of chemicals are added to what we eat, for safety, to improve the appearance or extend the shelf life of convenience foods. But today, food preservatives are a growing cause of anxiety.
 What is a Preservative
A preservative is any ingredient that you would not eat as food on its own. The basic intent of current food laws, around the world, is to prohibit the use of any additives unless relevant laws, regulations and codes, have specifically permitted them. A preservative is considered necessary if it will keep food wholesome until it is eaten or make it look and taste good, or make it easier to prepare, store and pack. But whether we do benefit from the system is a tricky question. Few people dispute that preservatives are necessary to keep but it is the extent of preservatives use that has become a point of debate.
For most people, convenience out weighs the slight hazards of food preservatives. As food patterns and lifestyles change, influenced by more travel and consumption of a greater variety of foods, people are demanding attractive looking food that is cheap, quick to prepare and has a long storage life. And manufacturers and retailers are willing to provide that. But as public pressure is mounting on use of lesser preservatives, manufacturers have responded, cutting colorings and preservatives
 About Preservatives
Chemical preservatives are being used for quite some time now. These chemicals act as either antimicrobials or antioxidants or both. They either inhibit the activity of or kill the bacteria, molds, insects and other microorganisms. They also prevent the loss of some essential amino acids some vitamins. Some of the most common additives are-
- Benzoates (such as sodium benzoate, benzoic acid)- They are used in the preservation of many beverages, jams, pickled products, salads, cheeses, meats and margarines.
- Nitrites (such as sodium nitrite)- They are used mainly in packaged meats. They also impart a pink, fresh hue to cured meat
- Sulphites (such as sulphur dioxide)- They are used as a preservative in dried fruits, wines (particularly red wines) and fruit juices and in many other food products.
- Sorbates (such as sodium sorbate, potassium sorbate)- They are used in breads, chesses, bakery products etc.
 What preservatives are for
There are 19 categories of additive, grouped according to function. An additive may be in a product to do more than one job but will be listed only under the main one. Some of he categories are -
- Anticaking agents
- Artificial sweetening substances
- Bleaching agents
- Flavour enhancers
- Flour treatment agents
- Food acids
- Mineral salts
- Vegetable gums
Preservatives do have their advantages. Some preservatives aid manufacturing. Antifoaming agents prevent liquids from boiling over or from frothing when they are bottled. Anticaking agents keep fine powders such as salt, flowing freely. Flour improvers help to make bread rise. The mineral hydrocarbons are used as glazing agents to seal and give gloss.
 Types of preservatives
There are many kinds of Preservatives –
- Antimicrobials, which prevent the growth of yeasts, molds and bacteria. For example sodium nitrate in sausage and ham or sulphur dioxide in wine and beer
- Antioxidants, which prevent food items from changing colour or getting black spots, like tocopherols in fat for cakes, ascorbyl palmitate in margarine. And sometimes both kinds are also used in the same food product.
There are other kinds as well like -
- Thickening and Stabilizing agents which are added to give a certain consistency and texture to food such as pectine in jam, locust bean gum in ice cream to prevent formation of ice crystals.
- Emulsifiers that are used to manufacture foods containing fats and water such as lecithin in chocolates, lactic acid esters of mono and digycerides in many bakery products.
- Then there are flavouring agents in soft drinks, ice creams and sauces.
- And Colours that are added as extras to both impart colour to food or compensate for lost colour due to processing. Such as caramel colour in soft drinks, carotenes in cheese and margarine.
- Even to replace sugar in low cal foods, one adds sweeteners that fall under the preservative range.
 Long term worries
A large number of people are worrying that, despite the efforts of the food regulators and governmental rules, not many tests are being done on the cumulative effects of absorbing a range of additives over many years or on possible interactions between the thousands of additives now approved for use. Some people assume that all preservatives are bad but still use the baking powder for home baking. Some substances approved as preservatives are a natural, desirable part of food. For example there is some coloring and monosodium glutamate in tomatoes but the colouring carotene and the flavour enhancer monosodium glutamate are viewed less favorably when they are added to processed foods.
The use of natural extracts rather than synthetic additives does not lessen the worry. If someone suffers ill effects from a particular chemical substance, the effect will be the same whether it has occurred naturally or been man made.
The effects of preservatives on human health are only just coming to fore, with many studies and research being done. For example nitrites and nitrates are anti-microbials that are very effective against the bacterium Clostridium botulinum. They are used mainly in packaged meats and also used to impart a pink, colour to cured meat but they react with amino acids to form cancer-causing nitrosamine, Sulfites that are compounds related to Sulfur dioxide and used in juices, can cause allergies in some people.
There are enough cases of people who have been made abnormally sensitive by some defect in the body chemistry. People have suffered from among a range of ailments- skin rashes, dermatitis, eczema, breathing problems, asthma, Migraine, bowel disorders and palpitations. Lumps and blotches on the skin are the most common bad reactions. Hyperactivity in children and some forms of cancer have also been blamed on preservatives.
 Wholesomeness of food
The human body is a well crafted piece of machinery. At the cellular level, there are a number of inter reactions that happen each day with the body’s immune system prepared for all eventualities. But when we introduce outside chemicals into the body, the natural defenses do not know how to react and that results in the body either absorbing these foreign substances or causing illness and breakdown of the organs. Studies have shown that a number of diseases that are occurring in humans such as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, Irritable Bowel Syndrome and acid stomach are because of the chemical food intake.
Behavioral analysts have also studied the reasons why the relation of humans with food has changed so drastically in the last few decades. According to them, food has simply become a commodity to be consumed to exist, to pass time or to soothe ourselves. Where it was once a pleasant connection to home, memories and nostalgia with families sitting down together for a natural, well cooked and nutritious meal, today it is replaced by nutrient deprived foods and mass produced substitutes. No body is taking food as seriously as one should.
Medical practitioners and nutritionists have done enough studies to prove that we are what we eat. These studies show that what we put in our bodies on a daily basis does effect the overall quality of life. Even though the modern human is bombarded with enough information on what such food do to our systems, people still do not relate to it and are not bothered to understand the chemistry that occurs inside our bodies when we eat. Simply put, even simple reactions such as heartburn, migraines, lactose intolerance could have a deeper meaning behind them.
 Identifying foods containing preservatives
Ingredients of processed foods are listed on the wrapping or package in order of the amount used. Preservatives, which must be listed, are present in tiny amounts and so appear at the end of the list. When they are in specific categories, such as colours, preservatives or minerals, they are grouped under their category heading by their official name, their code number or both. The permitted flavorings are not itemized but are simple recorded as flavorings. Foods often contain traces of substances that are not listed. These are substances that are not ingredients of the product but have previously been added to one or more of the ingredients, to keep them in good condition. For example enzymes used to tenderize meat for pies and other meat products.
The answer to the safety aspect of food additives is based on reviews of all available toxicological data, including observations of tests done in humans and in animals. From the available data, a maximum level of an additive that has no demonstrable toxic effect is determined. This is called the no-observed-adverse-effect level (NOAEL) and is used to determine the Acceptable Daily Intake (ADI) figure for each food additive. The problem occurs in translating that into actual safety levels for humans or the effect more than one additive has when it reacts with others. Studies and tests cannot be conducted on the entire spectrum of human population, subgroups and diversity. Hence it becomes difficult to catalogue the effect on children, the old and the ill, people with specific ailments etc. And that is where the harmfulness of food preservatives comes in.
 Facts to remember
- One must read the ingredient list for any food item bought.
- Never assume that because one is paying more or is buying a product from a health food store, that it is natural or free from preservatives.
- Develop a healthy eating habit. Eat only as much as you need. And ensure that families eat as one.
- Avoid bad eating habits such as eating in front of the tv, snacking inbetween meals, eating junk food etc.
- Eat whole foods or organic food
- Always pick foods labeled "low sodium" or "reduced sodium."
- Do not add salt to your food. Instead, use herbs and spices to flavor foods.
[www.food.gov.uk/safereating/ chemsafe/additivesbranch/preservatives] [www.goaskalice.columbia.edu/1692.htm] [www.drsref.com.au/foodaddcodes.html] [www.fedupwithfoodadditives.info]