When I was growing up, women who looked young for their age were referred to as well preserved. If we really are what we eat, we all should be well preserved. The average American diet is filled with preservatives.
I am a dedicated label reader, but sometimes I buy first and read later. Last week, I grabbed a package of corn tortillas thinking I’d make enchiladas. When I got home and looked at the package, I found methyl paraben (aka methylparaben) listed on the label. That didn’t sound appetizing. Why would I want to eat methyl paraben when I won’t even put it on my skin? They went in the trash.
Parabens are often used in cosmetics and pharmaceuticals to prevent the growth of fungus and bacteria. When parabens make their way into the tissue of humans, they may affect the endocrine system, and thereby hormones the body produces. This can in turn affect metabolism and other bodily functions. Some studies also show a correlation between the presence of methyl paraben and breast tumors.
Methyl paraben is only one common preservative. There are other parabens to watch for as well: propylparaben, butylparaben, and ethylparaben. Believe it or not, the these tortillas also contained propyl paraben, lye, sodium propionate, and sorbic acid. Huh? Are these survivalist tortillas? How long do they really need to last?
Obviously, preservatives mean a longer shelf life in a warehouse, grocery store, or your pantry. That sounds like a good thing. It’s nice to be able to have some staples in the pantry without constantly having to discard them.
The question is whether this convenience is slowly affecting our health. At this point, there are no definitive answers. If you want to be proactive, you may want to limit the products you purchase that contain the following:
BHA & BHT
Common food preservatives include butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA) and butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT). You can find them in meat, cereal, shortening, beer, or chewing gum. According to Scientific American, large doses of BHA & BHT have been shown to promote the growth of tumors in lab animals, and the National Institutes of Health’s National Toxicology Program concludes that BHA can be “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen.”
Bacon, jerky, deli meat, and smoked salmon are often preserved with the salt, sodium nitrate. It reduces color changes and prevents botulism. High levels of exposure have been linked to an increased incidence of cancer in adults.
Used in acidic foods like carbonated beverages, fruit juice, pickles and salsa, sodium benzoate inhibits the growth of bacteria, mold, and yeast. Typically used in small amounts, it is relatively safe. That doesn’t mean it’s always well tolerated. If I consume a diet soda with sodium benzoate, I feel really bad. The feeling is similar to a sudden blood sugar drop and resulting hangover.
Sulfites are found in a wide range of food and beverages like wine, beer, pickles, olives, powdered sugar, fruit juice, cocktail mixes, and processed baked goods. About 1 in 100 people are sensitive to sulfites.
Sorbic acid is an antimicrobial agent originally derived from the berries of the rowan tree used to prevent mold in cheeses, cake, yogurt, dried fruit, and salad dressing. It is FDA approved and generally recognized as safe.
Natamycin is a macrolide used as an antifungal in food and pharmaceuticals. It is in the same family as the antibiotics erythromycin, azithromycin, and clarithromycin. You’ll often see it on the label of cheese, cream cheese spreads, or pimento cheese. While considered safe to consume, it is not immune to intolerance. Macrolides cause a significant reaction in several members of my family.
Potassium benzoate can be found in carbonated soft drinks, cider, juices, jams, syrups and pickled foods. It is sometimes used in place of sodium benzoate to reduce the sodium content of a food. The US FDA generally recognizes it as safe and has approved it as a preservative and flavoring agent. Through trial and error, I have discovered that I can tolerate potassium benzoate without the adverse reaction I experience with sodium benzoate.
While the farm-to-table movement has brought us restaurant options serving fresh food, rest assured that your fast casual dining experience is filled with additives and preservatives. That doesn’t mean you should necessarily avoid your favorite restaurant chain, but it’s always good to make an informed choice rather than an uninformed choice.
What if I want to avoid preservatives?
Most of us don’t have time to go back to the canning and drying our ancestors did to preserve food. Freezing can still be a good option. Small shifts in habits may be sufficient for limiting the chemicals without adding too much time to your routine.
Here are a dozen examples of small changes that will make a difference over time:
Eat fresh fruit more often than dried fruit.
Instead of serving bread with dinner, substitute a baked potato or sweet potato.
Bake and keep some savory cheese muffins in the freezer to serve instead of rolls.
Use left-over or frozen vegetables, rice, left-over chicken, beef, or pork and your own herbs and spices to create casseroles or one pot meals rather than buying packaged versions or starters.
Remove boxed cereal from your breakfasts. Instead, eat raw nuts for some crunch in the morning. Storing them in the freezer will keep them fresh and increase the crunch. Don’t worry, they won’t break your teeth. Just pull them out of the freezer and chomp away!
Cook oatmeal from a large container rather than using flavored single servings. Store the cooked oatmeal divided into single microwaveable servings in the refrigerator and add your own toppings when you serve it. Sometimes, I like it with just butter, salt, and a splash of milk. Sometimes, I add some coconut crystals and fresh blackberries.
Consider making and freezing your own muffins, pancakes or waffles as convenient breakfast food.
Stir together various combinations of vinegar, oil, salt, pepper, and herbs for salad dressing rather than buying bottled dressing. My grandmother kept a cruet full of salad dressing on her kitchen counter. Her combination was pretty routine, but there are all sorts of infused oils and vinegars that can make salad dressing preparation a fun adventure!
Save the pot likker when you cook greens or beans. Use it in place of boxed chicken stock.
Make and/or freeze your own soups. Pomi tomatoes make a great soup base with no chemical preservatives. Pot likker can also be used if you don’t have time to make stock.
Create your own pasta sauce. Pomi tomatoes can be used for red sauce. A combination of milk, butter, salt, pepper, garlic powder, and some shredded Parmesan cheese can make a delicious white sauce. You can also use sour cream, yogurt, or pesto as a base for pasta sauce. You don’t have to simmer any of these for hours to have a flavorful sauce.
Drink water or unsweet tea rather than soft drinks or sports drinks. Use fresh fruit to flavor water instead of flavor packets. There are lots of cute glass water bottles with fruit infusers built in.
Even as urban gardens flourish, it seems unlikely that we’ll return to home canning any time soon. I can’t think of a single modern house that comes with a root cellar. And I can’t imagine that many of us will give up the convenience of every single food that contains a preservative.
Given that, minimizing exposure with small changes seem most realistic. And even then, we could end up well preserved!