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Today preservatives are part of our everyday food

April 2018

Packaged meat
These days, most food is clearly labelled

We are what we eat...this mantra has been with us for time immemorial and it is probably pretty true. But some things can sneak into our diets unplanned and this can be especially true of preservatives.

Preservatives are everywhere in the widest range of everyday foods. In a packet of dried apricots you will find the preservatives potassium sorbate and sulphur dioxide; a packet of ham or bacon will probably contain nitrates, in a glass jar of natural prunes there are the preservatives potassium sorbate and sorbic acid, a jar of mayonnaise can contain xanthan gum while mince meat will usually be mixed with acetic acid for longer life.

The list of preservatives used in modern food products is long and complex but it is not all bad news. Preservatives do help keep our food fresher for longer, and there are many food preservatives that are recognised as being totally safe for us to eat. Ascorbic acid for instance is often added to products to prevent spoilage and is perfectly safe; in fact it is an antioxidant that can help protect our body from free radicals as well as helping to prevent food going off.

However, there is slightly more concern about the widespread use of sulphites. These are added to food mainly to keep the products looking fresh and prevent discolouration or browning. However, there has been some evidence that links the use of sulphites to asthma and also to an increased level of allergies.

There is also concern about the use of nitrites...these preservatives are mostly used to help preserve meat products such as bacon and ham; they are also used in hot dogs to give that slightly reddy colour. Nitrites have had a lot of bad comment and some research has indicated there could be a link to some cancers. The American Cancer Society has suggested people should reduce their consumption of nitrites and some countries such as Germany and Norway have banned the use of sodium nitrate as a food preservative.

Sodium Benzoate is found in a number of fruit juices and drinks as well as in some other products. They are used generally to prevent fermentation or acidification. There has also been research that indicates that when sodium benzoate is mixed with vitamin C it can create benzene which is a recognised carcinogen. While one would have to drink a massive amount of drinks with benzoate to cause a problem, nevertheless it is worthwhile being aware of the connection.

Potassium sorbate is used to inhibit the growth of mould on foods and while it is produced naturally in some berries, it is also manufactured synthetically to help keep a range of foods fresh. It is actually a mild skin and eye irritant, but more recently research has shown that it has potential to alter our DNA. One study has shown the potassium sorbate is genotoxic, meaning it damages the genetic information within a cell that can cause mutations even leading to cancer. When potassium sorbate is mixed with vitamin C again there are indications of DNA damaging activity.

Brominated vegetable oils are used widely in bottled juices. They are a complex mixture of plant derived triglycerides and are used to help prevent especially citrus flavoured soft drinks from separating during storage. Evidence has been produced to show these oils can also produce potentially damaging and serious side effects, including changes in heart tissue, kidney damage, a swelling of the thyroid and even an increase in fatty deposits in the liver. Some countries are now banning the use of brominated oils in bottled drinks.

An interesting preservative that few of us would check for is maleic hydrazide. This preservative is added to some potatoes to help prevent them from sprouting before sale. However, it is a chemical inhibitor with a number of affects and there have been some reports indicating it could be involved in the development of certain cancers.

Propylene glycol used to be commonly added to ice cream and carboxymethylcellulose is a stabilizer that is usually found in cheese spreads, salad dressings and chocolate milk. When you realize that propylene glycol is also used as an antifreeze and a paint remover, and research on rats has linked carboxymethylcellulose to the development of tumours, both of these preservatives are probably best avoided.

Another weirdly named food preservative is Xanthan gum. This is commonly used to help keep fluids including mayonnaise stable. The scientific community generally agree that it is safe to consume up to 15 grams of xanthan gum a day, but there is risk of increases in defecation and flatulence especially if you go over this limit. Hardly a major problem but it does show that every additive usually has some additional side effect.

Sometimes food labels just include numbers rather than the actual name of the preservative, so to check it all out the following EU list might be useful. No one wants to spend all their shopping time staring at tiny labels, but checking the ingredients of some of the products you buy most often could we well worthwhile, just so you have an idea of exactly what you are eating on a regular basis.

E200       Sorbic acid
E202       Potassium sorbate
E203       Calcium sorbate
E210       Benzoic acid
E211       Sodium benzoate
E212       Potassium benzoate
E213       Calcium benzoate
E214       Ethyl p-hydroxybenzoate
E215       Sodium ethyl p-hydroxybenzoate
E218       Methyl p-hydroxybenzoate
E219       Sodium methyl p-hydroxybenzoate
E220       Sulphur dioxide
E221       Sodium sulphite
E222       Sodium hydrogen sulphite
E223       Sodium metabisulphite
E224       Potassium metabisulphite
E226       Calcium sulphite
E227       Calcium hydrogen sulphite
E228       Potassium hydrogen sulphite
E234       Nisin
E235       Natamycin
E239       Hexamethylene tetramine
E242       Dimethyl dicarbonate
E243       Ethyl lauroyl arginate
E249       Potassium nitrite
E250       Sodium nitrite
E251       Sodium nitrate
E252       Potassium nitrate
E280       Propionic acid
E281       Sodium propionate                                
E282       Calcium propionate
E283       Potassium propionate
E284       Boric acid
E285       Sodium tetraborate; borax
E1105    Lysozyme


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