Well Preserved

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:

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.”

Sodium Nitrate
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.

Sodium Benzoate
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
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
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!


Hold the Natamycin, Please

I’ll have sharp cheddar, and hold the Natamycin, please. Over the past few years, I’ve noticed that my hands sometimes break out after eating cheese dip, my cheeks turn bright red after an eye exam or when I use eye drops, and recently, I felt achy and uncomfortable for several days after eating shredded Parmesan cheese. Those sound like fairly random, unrelated events…are they?
I don’t like feeling tight, achy, antsy, itchy, or uncomfortable. I also don’t like looking like this photo that was taken after my last eye exam. I began to keep track of what happened just before I noticed these reactions. The emerging picture is, my system doesn’t like Polyene Antimycotics. And it’s not just my system. It seems my sister has been having similar reactions to the same list of products.

What are Polyene Antimycotics?

Polyene Antimycotics, also known as Polyene Antibiotics are a class of antimicrobial compounds that target fungi – think of them as antifungal agents. They are a subgroup of Macrolides which are natural products with a certain chemical makeup that fall in the Polyketide class. Polyene Antimycotics are most commonly derived from Streptomyces bacteria. Because they have antimicrobial or antibiotic properties, they are often used in pharmaceuticals.

What are they in?

Nystatin sold as Nilstat, Mycostatin, and Bio-Statin; and Amphotericin B sold as AmBisome, Amphocin, Amphotec, and Fungizone are examples of polyene class pharmaceuticals. Natamycin sometimes sold as Pimaricin, is another example. Natamycin is active against yeasts and molds.
moldy cheese
Not only is Natamycin used to treat eye infections, it’s increasingly used to inhibit mold in cheese, yogurt, and bread in the US. It’s also used to preserve crops like oranges. I understand the economic benefit of increased shelf life for food corporations. Having once pulled out and bitten a moldy sandwich from my school lunch bag (thanks, Mom), I even understand the aesthetic benefit.

Nonetheless, for obvious reasons, I don’t want this substance in my food. Whole Foods agrees with me. Since 2003, they have not sold products containing Natamycin. Unfortunately, the World Health Organization and the FDA consider it safe. Current research is on their side, but I wonder whether the safety studies, as designed, would have determined there was a connection between my reaction and Natamycin? Maybe not, it took me a few years to figure it out.

Are we the only ones who experience detrimental effects?

Even if my sister and I are the only two people on earth experiencing adverse effects, that’s enough reason for me to make a choice contrary to what the research indicates. I’m not willing to endure the side effects I experience when I consume Natamycin even if it’s deemed “safe”. Based on the evidence, it’s still not healthy for me. Of course, I wonder whether my sister and I are only two among thousands who suffer effects, but haven’t yet made the connection to polyene ingestion. In time, we may find out.

In the meantime, I’ll be searching for new brands of cheese. Last week, two of my regular selections for over 15 years contained a new list of ingredients that included Natamycin. Not only was it listed as an ingredient, it was presented as a “natural” substance. While that’s technically true, it seems a bit misleading. I don’t think most people expect a natural product that’s also used as a pharmaceutical to be included in their food. I feel disappointed by that presentation and the fact that I must find new options, but I’m a dedicated label reader so at least I noticed this ingredient change before I consumed the cheese.

I am increasingly concerned about the possibility that the cheeses used by my favorite restaurants have also undergone this change. Without the advantage of seeing the label, I could easily accidentally ingest Natamycin.

On behalf of my sister, myself, and anyone else who may be detrimentally affected by polyenes, I’d like to say to* Kraft Heinz – owners of Kraft® Brand Cheese Products & Snack Trios, Nestlé – owners of Buitoni® Brand Products, Saputo – owners of Frigo® & Stella® Brand Products, and all other food companies out there: “I don’t want to have to say, hold the cheese. I just want to say, hold the Natamycin, please.” To the WHO and FDA, and researchers everywhere, “I hope you’ll investigate further.” To anyone whose very real reactions have been dismissed by a medical professional, “I’m so sorry. There’s nothing more discouraging and crazy-making.”

Luckily, it is easier than ever to share information that allows us to make better and better food choices. For that, I am grateful.

*This is not a comprehensive list. These companies also own other brands that may contain Natamycin and other companies may include it in their products as well. This list was compiled based on recent personal experience only. Please read the label before consuming any product.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”