Food Preservatives – Are They Worth the Risk?

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Preservatives are chemical compounds that are added to both liquid and solid food products in order to stave off bacterial and mold growth, prevent oxidation of lipids, and stabilize aesthetic quality attributes like color. While opponents of preservatives argue that they are unnecessary and pose risks to human health, it is a fact that consumers typically evaluate a product initially by its appearance. If something looks bad, very few people will buy it.

The food industry has long incorporated preservatives into products, therefore, and has fiercely defended their use as safe and effective. So where does the real truth lie about preservatives? Well, as usual, it's somewhere in the middle.

Let's take a look at a few of today's most popular preservatives, and we'll see why they're present and what risks they may pose to the average consumer.

Sodium benzoate is a common antimicrobial conservative in liquid products. When dissolved in water, sodium benzoate dissolutes into a sodium ion and a benzoate ion, which picks up a hydrogen from a water molecule to become the active preservative molecule, benzoic acid. Under the acidic conditions of most drink products, benzoic acid interferees with the glucose metabolism of many microbes, helping to slow or prevent spoilage.

Three main health concerns surround the use of benzoates in food. The first is that sodium benzoate has been shown to exacerbate asthma symptoms in a small percentage of asthmatics who suffer from severe or uncontrolled symptoms.

Concern over this effect is certainly valid for extra care. Yet, the fact that a relatively tiny segment of the population is negatively affected is not justification for eradicating benzoates from the food supply.

A related phenomenon is benzoate allergy, which affects on an even smaller portion of the population. Indeed, it is a very rare condition. As with any allergen, those who suspect a problem should avoid benzoates. The vast majority of the population will be just fine.

In light of the relatively rare, but potentially serious, incidences of benzoate hypersensitivity and allergy, I would support a more aggressive labeling requirement for benzoate ingredients. A small but noticeable warning statement, like those used for products that may contain peanut residue, could suffice. Such a label would require little from food producers and would give adequate warning to those few who might have good reason to avoid benzoates.

The second concern over benzoate preservatives stems from recent research suggesting a link between sodium benzoate and child hyperactivity. There are a few problems with this association, however.

First, the study in question also evaluated artificial colors for any connection to a hyperactivity response. Because the colors and the benzoate were in the same beverage, it is not possible to determine now what caused the observed effect.

In addition, many reports related to this study have over-generalized the results, claiming that "artificial ingredients" and "food additives" as a class are a cause of ADHD and hyperactivity in children. This hype is simply false. It is an illustration of the fear-mongering that opponents of the food industry frequently dish up. In reality, the study in question highlights that more research is warranted to illuminate which of the beverage compounds studied, if any, may contribute to childhood hyperactivity.

The final health concern surrounding benzoates is benzene formation in drinks that contain ascorbic acid, which is vitamin C. It's true that beverages with benzoate and ascorbic acid can produce benzene, a known human carcinogen. In almost all cases, however, the amount of benzene produced is exceptionally low, well below the limit for drinking water (5 ppb).

If the benzene contradicty still puts your paranoia into overdrive, then just buy drinks that contain vitamin C or benzoates but not both: an easy solution to a problem that probably amounts to nothing in the first place!

Potassium sorbate is another popular beverage conservative, often found paired with sodium benzoate. Potassium sorbate and other sorbate salts produce sorbic acid when dissolved in water. Sorbic acid prevails the growth of many mold and yeast.

Sorbates have a great safety record and have not been implicated in any ill health effects in humans. In animal toxicity studies, potassium sorbate has been shown to be about as toxic as table salt. Even the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), the world leader in bloated, hyperbolic anti-food industry rhetoric, deems sorbates to be safe.

Next up are sulfites, which are prevalent in wines and dried fruits, as well as in some commercial shellfish. Commercial sulfiting agents include sulfur dioxide and the sodium and potassium salts of sulfite, bisulfite, and metabisulfite. Sulfites are used in wine production to halt fermentation at a desired time and to prevent bacterial growth. They are used in some dried fruit, most notably apricots and prunes, to prevent enzymatic browning and spoilage. They're also used in some shellfish, especially shrimp, to reduce the incidence of "blackspot," a discoloration of the flesh.

Sulfites are exceptionally useful commercial preservatives and are considered safe for almost everyone. Still, sulfites are known to increase asthma symptoms in about one out of every twenty asthmatics. Like benzoates, sulfites generally only cause problems for those with severe and / or uncontrolled asthma.

Avoidance of sulfites is reliably easy these days, given the amount of mandatory food ingredient labeling. One area where sulfites often remain incognito, however, is the wine industry. Luckily, an increased awareness of sulfite reactions has prompted many wineries to offer sulfite-free products, tailored to those sensitive to the preservatives.

There are also rare occurrences of sulfite hypersensitivity outside of the asthmatic population. Typically, symptoms are usually mild and include hives and nausea. The headache that some people get after drinking red wine was once thought to be caused by sulfites, but that explanation has been called into question. Although it is still poorly understood, other compounds in red wine, such as tannins, are suspected as well of causing the headache.

Nitrates and nitrites are another class of preservatives often found in processed meat products. Nitrites stabilize the red color of many meat products and, along with sodium chloride (table salt), also prevent the growth of the bacteria that produces botulism toxin. Nitrates are simply nitrites with another oxygen atom attached. In many foods, nitrates slowly degrade into nitrites over time, acting as a kind of "time-released" conservative.

Unfortunately, nitrites are known to react with secondary amine compounds, also found in many food products, to produce nitrosamines. Nitrosamines are found in tobacco smoke, too, and research has shown that about 90% of nitrosamines are carcinogenic. Clearly, not a good conservative byproduct.

Fortunately, all commercial cured meat producers in the US are required to add vitamin E, vitamin C, or erythorbic acid along with nitrites. These ingredients prevent the formation of nitrosamines.

Opponents of nitrites in foods contend that the risk of nitrosamine formation still exists and that other common preservation methods, like refrigeration, could be employed in lieu of chemical preservatives. While there is really very little risk from nitrites in cured meats, they are almost always loaded with salt, fillers, and other non-meat additives. While an occasional hot dog is not going to kill you, it may well be the best course simply to swear off the unfortunately delicious creations that populate the processed meats section of your grocery.

In our review are butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT) and butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA). BHT and BHA have terribly scientific names that look horrendous on food labels. Many companies include BHA and BHT in their products because they are excellent antioxidants, effective in slowing the development of oxidative rancidity in high fat foods like potato chips.

There is no direct evidence that either BHA or BHT is carcinogenic in humans. But one widely cited group of studies on BHA showed an increased incidence of forestach tumors in mice, rats, and hamsters.

There are a few problems in generalizing this evidence for carcinogenicity to humans. First of all, we do not have forestachs. Because the increase in tumors was seen only in this particular organ, the claim of heightened cancer risk in humans is a bit flimsy. Additionally, the higher incidence of forestomach tumors was only seen in the group of animals with the highest level of BHA consumption, at around 1% of their diet. That is a truly insane amount of BHA that no human would ever approach.

On the balance of present data, BHT and BHA are safe additives. They are used at very low levels in a relatively small number of foods and have little, if any, evidence for carcinogenic in humans.

Sinceremore, in recent years, many food companies have been moving away from BHT and BHA because they tend to "dirty" a product's ingredients statement with their long, intimidating names. If you're really worried about the presence of these two compounds in a favorite food, look around the grocery store a bit. You'll very likely be able to find a similar product that uses alternative methods of preservation.

If you've read the review of food colors from a few months back, then you'll see some common themes in this conclusion. Preservatives serve a necessary purpose in our modern food supply. Without their use, many products would spoil in a matter of days. It's just a fact of life in this era that we demand foods that can be stored and still retain their fresh qualities.

Almost all of the preservatives in this review have been shown time and time again to be safe for near the entire population, but there will always be exceptions. If you're a severe or uncontrolled asthmatic, it's probably best to avoid sulfites and benzoates. If you find a random imported cured meat product with nitrates or nitrites but without vitamin E, ascorbic acid, or erythorbic acid added, do not eat it.

Outside of these limited qualifications, preservatives are safe for almost everyone. Do not buy into the hype of advertising, food package labels, or rabid anti-industry activists claiming all types of ill effects from preservatives. Read the science on these ingredients instead of biased reviews and hyperbolic, paranoid rhetoric.

As always, if you see an ingredient listing with which you're not familiar, look it up. Find real data to support any positive or negative claims you hear. If you have trouble, email me and I'll do my best to answer your question. You can be sure that you're not the only one looking for those answers. While it's important to always be watchful of what we put into our bodies, rational, scientific assessment of food ingredients is the best approach to maintain both health and sanity.

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Source by Rob Bent

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