Preservatives are natural or man-made chemicals that are added to foods to stop them from spoiling. Preservatives are used because many packaged foods need a preserving agent to keep them from going bad and to protect us against food-borne illnesses.
Why should I be aware of this?
We are getting more and more distanced from the source of our food. Now food not only has to travel farther and farther but, for this very reason also needs to be stored longer. To keep this food from going bad new preservative methods have evolved without which bread would get mouldy, and salad oil would go rancid before it's used up. Molds growing on decaying food have caused many epidemics in many parts of the world.
How does this affect me
Chemical preservatives are harmful because our body’s digestive system doesn't know what to do with the stuff preservatives are made of and will either eliminate it or store it somewhere. And when it reacts in our body we suffer the consequences with illness.
Preservatives are subject of endless debate among academics and food science and toxicology specialists. It is argued that most products contain preservatives in minute dozes and, therefore, can’t kill. But the combined effect of the 3000 additives and toxins can easily be imagined. Some of the common preservatives used are:
- Benzoates and sorbates- used in the preservation of many beverages, jams, pickled products, salads, cheese, meat and margarines.
- Butylated hydroxytoluene/ hydroxyanisole; tert-butylhydroquinone; propyl gallate - used in oils and lipids to prevent it from becoming rancid.
- Citric and ascorbic acids (vitamin C) - Used for cutting down the phenolase action in fresh cut vegetables and fruits.
- EDTA (ethylenediamine tetra-acetic acid) – Also used to preserve freshly cut fruits and vegetables
- Nitrites and nitrates – used mostly in packaged meat
- Propionates – used for preserving bakery products
- Sulfites - used as a preservative in dried fruits, wines (particularly red wines) and fruit juices.
- Sulphur Dioxide - preservative in a wide range of food products.
Among the above preservatives, apart from sulfites and propionates, which cause allergic reactions to a small percentage of people, and Nitrites, which react with amino acids to form cancer-causing nitrosamines, all other preservatives are not known to have any harmful side effects.
To keep things simple just avoid the most questionable additives such as sodium nitrite, saccharin, caffeine, olestra, acesulfame K, and artificial coloring, used primarily in foods of low nutritional value. All of the chemical food coloring can be potentially harmful and are best avoided. Organic foods are not supposed to contain any chemical preservatives, but many natural products contain some natural and some synthetic additives. It is, therefore, advisable to check the labels for ingredients before using any such product.
Preservatives and health
It has long been known that preservatives like parabens cause allergic reactions. But it has recently been discovered that they can increase the risk of breast cancer and reproductive abnormalities. Young boys exposed to such chemicals either prior to puberty are likely to run the risk of testicular cancer, sperm abnormalities and prostate disorders.
More alarming perhaps is the fact that there are preservatives used in cosmetics which actually release small amounts of formaldehyde - which is not only an irritant and skin sensitizer, but is cancer-causing and damaging to the nervous system.
Certain chemicals can penetrate the skin and enter the blood stream if cosmetics such as moisturizers, are applied and left for a long time. If you find cosmetics calling themselves organic yet containing hexachlorophene, methyl, propyl paraben and formaldehyde, then such cosmetics are not good for you.
All about preservatives
Life was easy when most foods came from farms. Now, factory-made foods have made chemical additives a significant part of our diet. Flavor of lemon juice has been replaced with a tongue twister called 2-methyl-3-(pisopropylphenyl)-propionaldehyde. This is only one of the estimated 3000 chemical additives which we consume.
Preservatives are added to food during manufacturing to prevent spoilage during transit to their different destinations and then for storing in our kitchens. There are also economic reasons behind adding artificial preservatives - mass production and warehousing for a long period of time. For centuries traditional preservatives such as wood smoke, vinegar, and honey have been used to combat decay in foods. Sulphur dioxide, the most widely used preservative, has actually been in use since the Middle Ages.
Preservatives kill or stop the growth of microorganism. Synthetic preservatives also have side effects. If taken in excess natural preservatives too can be harmful. If natural preservatives did not kill they would not be doing their job properly.
Earlier preservative methods included pickling with vinegar, salting or sulphur dioxide common in wine. Presently additives such as acids, anti-caking and anti-foaming agents, antioxidant, bulking agents, food coloring, color retention agents, emulsifiers, preservatives, propellants, stabilizers, sweeteners etc. are being used. Stabilizers are added to give foods a good texture. Vinegar and citric acid are added to give food a sharper flavor and function as preservatives and antioxidants. Antioxidants by inhibiting the effects of oxygen on food act as preservatives. Anti foaming agents are used to reduce or prevent foaming in foods.
During processing natural food is crushed, heated and chemicals are added to it which kills all the nutritional value of the food. Additives are then added to restore the vitamins and nutrients that were lost during processing. Processed food is to be preserved, given color and flavor by addition of chemical additives.
Preservatives serve as either antimicrobials, which prevents the growth of molds, yeasts and bacteria, or antioxidants which keep foods from becoming rancid, browning, or developing black spots. Antioxidants suppress the reaction that occurs when foods combine with oxygen in the presence of light, heat, and some metals. Antioxidants also minimize the damage to some essential amino acids--the building blocks of proteins--and the loss of some vitamins.
Effects on Children
A recent research financed by Britain’s Food Standards Agency has found that hyperactive behavior in a broad range of children was likely to increase because of common food additives and colorings. This leads to inattention and impulsivity among children and makes learning more difficult, at least into middle childhood.
The Agency advised parents to monitor any changes in their children’s activity following consumption of food containing additives and make efforts to avoid artificial colors and preservatives.
Preservatives in Cosmetics
If you check the labels of the cosmetics and toiletry products you use you will find that most renowned brands use synthetic preservatives like parabens (including methylparaben, propylparaben, isoparaben, and butylparaben) in their products. They’re commonly used in shampoo, moisturizer, cleansing and shaving gels and toothpaste.
Most of the times labels on your cosmetic products will not mention the preservatives used. This is because of lack of proper regulations in the cosmetic and personal care product industry. Specially be careful of the term “and other ingredients”, which implies trade secrets the manufacturer does not want to reveal. Also avoid cosmetics with any mention of preservatives such as benzethonium chloride, BHA, BHT, diazolidinyl urea, imidazolidinyl urea, phenoxyethanol and methylisothiazolinone.
There are, however, some preservatives used in cosmetics which are both gentle on our systems and which have effective preservative qualities. They include grapefruit seed extract, potassium sorbate, sorbic acid, tocopherol (vitamin E), vitamin A (retinyl), Vitamin C (ascorbic acid).
- Processed Foods and Cosmetic & Food Additives
- Common Chemical Preservatives
- Multifarious Food Additives
- Some Food Additives Raise Hyperactivity
- The dangers of synthetic preservatives in cosmetics
- Certain chemical preservatives are unwelcome contaminants
- and Additives