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Sunday, August 25, 2013

How safe are preservatives?

Almost everything we eat has some form of preservative in it to make the food have a longer shelf life.  I you made your own bread, it would get moldy within a few days on your counter.  So store bought bread has preservatives in it to help prevent this growth of mold.  Read the label on packaged cured meats like bacon and sausage and a number of preservatives will be listed.  So are these preservatives safe to it?  Are there any we should avoid/

A recent article in Environmental Nutrition explored the safety of preservatives (Safety of Preservatives Explored).   Before modern food processing, many techniques were used to preserve foods.  Adding salt to foods, sugar is used in canned jellies, home canning vegetables was used to preserve them for future use.   Now manufacturers add sodium benzoate, sulfites, BHA and BHT.  So why do manufacturers add these chemicals to our food?  Their reasons include:

  • Longer shelf life
  • Reduce moisture content for a longer shelf life
  • Increase acidity for a longer shelf life
  • Delay or prevent the natural ripening process

These are good reasons and many are actually good for our health including:

  • Preventing food borne illnesses
  • Less likely for food to become rancid

So what are some of the preservatives used and which ones are safe and which ones should we avoid? 
Preservatives Used In Our Foods (adapted from Safety of Preservatives Explored)
Safety of Preservative
Healthy Risk
Vitamins E and C – alpha tocopherol, ascorbic acid
Vitamin E: Vegetable oils, cereals, some beverages
Vitamin C :  cereals, fruit drinks, meats (cured)

Potato chips, vegetable oils, chewing gum, cereals
BHA – avoid
BHT – use with caution
BHA – may be a human carcinogen
Calcium or Sodium Propionate
Pies, cakes, rolls, bread

Propyl Gallate
Potato sticks, vegetable oils, some meat products, chicken soup base, chewing gums
Linked to cancer
Sodium Nitrate, Nitrite
Cured meats such as bacon, sausage, processed meats, hot dogs, luncheon meats
Increased risk of cancer and heart disease
Tartaric Acid
Candy, ice cream, baked goods, yogurt, baking powder

So why are some of the “avoid” preservatives allowed in our foods?  FDA considers these preservatives as “Generally Recognized as Safe” so allows them to be used by manufacturers.  Yet other governmental agencies recognize the lack of safety of some of these preservatives.  The US Dept. of Health and Human Services has noted that BHA is “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen”. 
So should you avoid anything with preservatives in it?  First of all, good luck as so many foods are processed and have preservatives.  Also, some preservatives appear to be safe.  What about the “avoid”?  Should you avoid bacon, sausage and other foods with preservatives that may adversely affect your health?  You can or you can consider the overall amount of preservatives you take in daily, weekly, monthly.  By eating less processed foods and more fresh foods, you can reduce your intake of preservatives. 
Some recommendations:
Eat more fresh foods – fresh fruits, meat that hasn’t been cured, fresh vegetables, nuts. Low fat yogurt, healthy oils like olive oil
Eat less processed foods – the less processed and packaged the better for your health
Read the ingredients and avoid BHA, Propyl Gallate, sodium nitrite, sodium nitrate

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