Guest blog by Sam Hadadi
Preservatives – The Good and The Bad
Let’s face it, we’ve all ripped into a packet of biscuits (or three), without even stopping to consider what ingredients might be lurking amongst them.
From refined sugars to artificial flavourings – even brightly garish colourings -the foods we find on our supermarket shelves are full of chemicals and hidden nasties.
Of course, you and I know that we should avoid processed foods wherever we can, but what about preservatives in our foods? Are they bad for us? And are they even necessary?
What are Preservatives?
Keep a loaf of bread on your kitchen island and, after a few days, chances are it’ll start to go stale. If you’re unlucky, it may even start to grow mould and develop a horrible taste and smell. Have a rummage through your cupboards or fridge, and plenty of other foods – most of which we eat on a daily basis – will go off too.
Preservatives are there to stop all that. They tend to be natural or man-made chemicals added to foods to prevent bacteria and extend shelf-life. Manufacturers chuck them into products to stop food from going off, or spoiling. They can even be added to help prevent potentially deadly illnesses, such as botulism.
In fact, preservatives have been used by humans for thousands of years, in all sorts of food preparation. Think back to way back when, and our prehistoric ancestors not only had to know which foods were safe to eat but also how to make them edible – and keep them that way.
Fresh fruit and vegetables were made into preserves so they could be enjoyed throughout the year – think of jam making, a great way to use up fruit and save any wastage,too.
Of course, preservatives today are a different story altogether, and not quite so natural. Most of them were introduced to foods in the 1970s (yep, when our health as a nation slowly started to freefall), giving shoppers the chance to buy larger amounts of food, less often.
Whether or not you’re looking for them, preservatives can now be found in most processed foods, in products as varied as:
- Low-fat spreads
- Cheeses, dressings and condiments
- Baked products such as biscuits, bread and cake
- Dried fruits
There are lots of preservatives out there, but check your labels and you can spot them pretty easily. They will usually be there, hiding under some complicated guise, or futuristic-sounding name. Here are the more popular ones:
Otherwise known as Butylated Hydroxyanisole, BHA is used to keep foods from going off.
You’ll often find it in high-fat foods, such as butter, meat and baked goods but you may also spy it in cereals and snacks and even beer and chewing gum.
BHT – or Butylated Hydroxytoluene –stops foods from losing flavour and colour, and it also prevents things from developing a smell. Again, you’ll find BHT in high-fat foods, such as oils or shortenings, as well as cereals.
Worryingly, given that BHT is one of the most common food preservatives, it has been linked to stomach and liver cancer and is being investigated for damaging genetic material1.
Sodium nitrate is (yep, you guessed it), a salt used in many meats, including bacon, deli meats and smoked salmon. Not only does it help to prevent colour changes, but it can also stop botulism.
Used in wine making and to stop discolouration and browning in products, Sulfites can be found in pretty much most foods under the sun. They include beer, ready-made cocktails, baked goods, pickles, condiments and fruit juices.
However, as with many preservatives, they seem to come with their own health risks. Sulfites1 are banned from being used in foods that naturally contain vitamin B1 as they can destroy this vitamin. It’s also thought that it could worsen asthma in children and adults – pretty scary, right?
Sodium benzoate stops bacteria, mould and yeast from growing in acidic foods, such as fruit juices, pickles, salsa and dip.
Can Preservatives Do Us Damage?
As you’ve seen, many food preservatives are linked to health risks, and they all come with a host of health warnings and bad press. And all for good reason – food preservatives have been linked to all kinds of things, including cancer, hyperactivity in children and poor heart health. Here, we’ll explore some of the studies that have linked preservatives to health problems:
The National Toxicology Program (in America)2 found that that propyl gallate – a preservative used in many cosmetics as well as in foods containing fat – can lead to tumours in the brain, thyroid and pancreas.
Meanwhile, health organisation InChem found that nitrosames, which include nitrates and nitrites, can cause cancer-causing compounds as they tamper with our body’s natural stomach acids. Scarily, nitrosames are found in some of the foods we always add to our shopping trolleys, including cured meat and beer.
If you have hyperactive children and toddlers (trust us, we feel your pain!), then chances are it could be the chemicals added to the foods you’re feeding them. A study published in 2004 found a huge increase in hyperactive behaviour in 3-year-olds who took benzoate preservatives. Benzoates can be found in lots of foods, particularly fizzy drinks, pickles and fruit juice.
Food preservatives are also linked to behavioural changes2, especially in young children. In 2003, a double-blind study of 1,873 children showed that eating preservatives led to a huge increase in hyperactive behaviour.
In fact, the changes were so marked that removing the preservatives or using a placebo didn’t lead to these behaviours.
Preservatives such as sulfites3 have been found to trigger breathing problems, such as asthma, in young children. In fact, there are even studies to suggest that they can cause other allergies too.
As we mentioned, preserving food has gone on for thousands upon thousands of years. Cavemen, for instance, would use many different methods to ensure foods would stay edible and not go off.
Dehydration: This is perfect for stopping meat going off, as well as vegetables or grains germinating.
Heating: Heat temporarily kills off germs and bacteria, and therefore increases shelf life. You know that hog roast that’s popular today? That’s an ancient technique used from way back when to destroy nasties. Years ago when houses had a central fireplace and chimney, meat and fish would be hung over to dry out or ‘smoked’, so preventing bacteria growth.
Freezing : Ancient people living in cold climates would often note that food would stay fresh for longer. This led to cold storage, where people would use cool caves with ice or snow to keep food fresh.
Pickling: Vinegar is made by fermenting sugar and water and is an effective natural preservative. The acetic acid not only kills microbes, but it also prevents spoilage.
Chemical Preservation: You may think it sounds unnatural but food additives have been used for thousands upon thousands of years. Salt, for example, was renowned in ancient times for its preservation qualities and used to be used so that salted fish could be exported from the North Sea and across Europe. Meat, too, would be salted in the middle ages to last through the winter.
Meanwhile, smoking is another common preservative technique used for such foods as bacon and kippered herring.
Of course, many natural preservatives work every bit as well as the chemical ones, and include:
As we’ve already mentioned, salt has been used as a preservative for fish and meats since ancient times. It helps to dehydrate microbes through osmosis (are we taking you back to science lessons yet) and will also halt the growth of bacteria and prevent yeast and moulds.
As your mum will always tell you when you feel a cold coming on, lemon juice is rich in vitamin C. This is also known as ascorbic acid, and is a clever antioxidant that prevents rotting. As with salt, lemon juice (often labelled as C6H807 or citric acid in foods) draws out water, therefore balancing the pH and natural acids in food.
Never heard of this as a preservative before? Nope, us neither! Rosemary is made from the distillation of rosemary leaves and contains carnosic and rosmaranic acid, which help to stop decay.
Oh yes, sugar has more to offer than just soothing our sweet teeth. It also naturally preserves food by drawing out water (like lemon and salt) and kills microorganisms and bacteria. This is often used to preserve fruits (that’s why many dried fruits are bad for you) and stops the growth of bacteria, mould and yeasts.
In fact, sugar is so good at preventing decay that you’ll even find it added to water in a flower vase to feed flowers.
Oh, yes! Just when you thought there couldn’t possibly be more uses for your favourite Lucy Bee Coconut Oil, think again. There’s evidence to suggest that monolaurin – found in coconut oil – could be used to prevent bacteria found in foods4.
How do I Avoid Preservatives?
Look away from the natural preservatives, and it’s all a bit worrying, isn’t it? Some of the foods we consume as a nation, each and every single day – including meat and fruit juices – can be pretty toxic and damaging to our health and bodies.
And even if you do use natural preservatives, many of those come with dangers too. We all know that adding too much sugar and salt to our foods can come with a whole host of problems, so what else can we do? And how do we avoid it?
Well, our advice is pretty simple really. We always say that you should check your food labels, and we mean it!
If you can’t pronounce the ingredients, don’t buy it. Better yet, buy fresh foods wherever you can, prepare your foods from scratch (adding jarred sauce to pasta doesn’t count!) and embrace flavours and tastes as nature intended. Maybe have a go at preserving fruits or veg yourself – there’s something quite satisfying about home-made chutney or jam.
Finally, wherever possible, try and go organic since these foods are usually free from harmful preservatives and added chemicals. While a fresh, organic diet may cost more, can you really put a price on your health…?
About Lucy Bee Limited
Lucy Bee is concerned with Fair Trade, ethical and sustainable living, recycling and eating close to nature with additive free products for health.
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