Standards of Quality – Part 2
What are artificial preservatives?
Food preservatives are substances added to prevent decomposition caused by microbes or by chemical changes. Food can be preserved chemically by adding chemical substances called artificial preservatives. These are typically derived from acids, which work to raise the food’s acidity to a level that will kill off microbacteria. Food can also be preserved physically by means of refrigeration, dehydration, freeze-drying, or radiation.
Subgroups of artificial preservatives
Artificial preservatives can be broken into three categories: antimicrobial agents, chelating agents, and antioxidants. Benzoates, propionates, nitrates, and sorbates are a few examples of antimicrobial agents commonly added to food. If you’re in the habit of checking food labels, you might be familiar with the term “nitrate.” Nitrates are inorganic compounds commonly combined with sodium to make sodium nitrate, a popular meat preservative. However, nitrates are toxic in high quantities and can produce carcinogens called nitrosamines.
Benzoates are compounds often used to preserve soft drinks, flour, toothpaste, and pharmaceuticals. The most common benzoate found in food is potassium benzoate, which is used to prevent the growth of bacteria, mold, and yeast. Benzoates are dangerous to consume when combined with ascorbic acid, or vitamin C, as they produce cancer-causing substances called benzenes. In addition, some studies have found increased hyperactivity in children after consuming benzoates.
Propionates are salts of propionic acid frequently used in the prevention of mold in baked goods. The most common are calcium propionate and sodium propionate. Calcium propionate is mostly used in bread, while the latter can be found in bread, pastries, cheese, and chocolate. Propionates are dangerous, as they are cumulative, and can cause IBS (irritable bowel syndrome), insomnia, anxiety, and attention deficit disorders.
The last of the antimicrobial agents are sorbates, or salt from sorbic acid, often used in the preservation of dairy products, smoked fish, breads, and fruit products. Potassium sorbate is the most commonly used artificial preservative in the world. Sorbates can cause allergic reactions in some people with symptoms ranging from an aching stomach, intestinal changes, and itching. Migraines have been associated with the consumption of sorbates, and patients with kidney disease have suffered increased potassium levels in the blood, i.e. hyperkalemia.
The second subgroup of artificial preservatives is antioxidant preservatives, which slows down the reaction of food with oxygen, thus helping the prevent spoilage. Some antioxidants, such as retinoids (vitamin A) and ascorbic acid (vitamin C), but there are many artificial antioxidants found in baked goods and fats, such as butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT) and sulfites.
Sulfites are compounds of charged Sulphur and Oxygen, which occur naturally in most wine, but are also added to foods in the form of sodium sulfite, sodium bisulfite, etc. Sulfites are dangerous, as they have been found to cause allergies, shortness of breath, increased asthma symptoms, skin rashes, and more. You should be especially careful consuming sulfites if you have asthma or are allergic to aspirin or acetylsalicylic acid.
The last subgroup of artificial preservatives is chelating agents, or chemicals that bind to metal ions in food that negatively affect food’s color, texture, and smell. EDTA is the most commonly used chelating agent. It is typically used as a flavor and texture enhancer in mayonnaise and other sauces, as well as in canned foods to eliminate the metal taste. Some side effects of EDTA consumption are kidney damage, irregular heartbeat, anemia, etc. Please see the sources at the end of the blog for more side effect information.
Natural food preservation
The good news is, there are natural ways to preserve our food. Salt is an ancient food preservative which absorbs water, preventing microorganism growth, while also preventing yeast and bacteria. Sugar works in the same way, while oil slows down oxidation and shields food from microorganisms. As mentioned earlier, citric acid and ascorbic acid are natural preservatives, which is why lemon juice works well to keep food fresh. Similarly, vinegar’s acidity makes it a great preservative to add to pickles and canned food.
Some preservatives you might not typically think of are spices. Indian and Chinese medicines have used cloves for thousands of years as a preservative. Cloves contain large amounts of antioxidant phenolic compounds, preventing fungus and bacteria from growing. Oregano and sage also have antioxidant and antibacterial properties, making them great natural options. Just make sure you don’t overpower the taste of the food by using too much. Antioxidant-rich thyme is used to prevent the decay of food and cosmetics, but this one is best used with other preservatives. Cinnamon is delightfully aromatic and kills some organisms, but like thyme should be used in conjunction with other natural preservatives. Rosemary extract, which can be made by distilling rosemary leaves, contains over 20 highly effective and long lasting antioxidants.
Lemon juice isn’t the only fruit containing high levels of citric acid. You can find it in other citrus fruits such as limes, grapefruits, and oranges, and even non-citrus fruits like plums and peaches. Every wonder why these fruits are so sour? It’s because of the citric acid. Synthetically created citric acid is often found in soda and candy, but you can also extract it from these fruits and use it as a natural preservative. Finally, vitamin E-rich mixed tocopherols are often used as a natural preservative, as they are high in antioxidants and work well to protect the flavor and freshness of food.
With so many great natural preservative options, we don’t see a reason to carry products with artificial preservatives. We can protect our health, our bodies, and our families from the harmful effects of artificial preservatives by shopping for natural food products and avoiding these synthetic ingredients. Check back next week for a blog covering other artificial ingredients, including artificial flavors.