Preservatives in food

Preservatives in food

We all know that they are there in the food that we consume and we have this trust that our heavily regulated food production industry is doing the right thing. But do we truly know, what we as consumers are eating?

When my father was growing up, he used to ride with his father on a cart being pulled by an old draft horse, delivering bread though the streets of Sydney. My dad, who is now seventy, still goes to a special place when recalling the story of sitting next his father, a fresh hot loaf of bread in his lap, picking at it as they rounded the streets on their morning run. What bread was left over got eaten that day or its fate was sealed – bread and butter pudding or chicken food. They did this because the bread would be either stale or in the early stages of deterioration by the next day.

I used to laugh when I was growing up and dad would flatly refuse to eat day old bread. You see I am child of the 80’s. Mass produced, heavily adulterated food was the norm and it was found in every Australian’s fridge and pantry. This trend has continued to today and it’s even more prevalent than ever. To those of us who get around by car rather than horse; and who eat ice-cream from a tub rather than a freshly made dessert, preservatives are essential to maintaining the lifestyle that we love. They are something most of us don’t question or even think about.

For me to make bread at home it takes 5 key ingredients – flour, water, sugar, yeast and a pinch of salt. What do I need to add to this to make it last for several days sitting on my kitchen bench-top?  I recently counted the number of ingredients on the back of a packet of flat bread.  I did this because I noticed the ‘used by’ stamp said that it could last for 6 weeks (if unopened) in a cupboard. I know that after 6 weeks my home made loaf of bread would resemble something out of a dark green swamp if subjected to the same form of treatment. I stopped counting when I got over 30 ingredients. I understand that there were a variety of sugars, anti-caking agents, leavening ingredients; hell there was even flour and salt.  It was some of the numbers that got me thinking, more than just thinking. If these preservatives could sustain bread outside a freezer for that long, what were they doing to my body?

Sorbic acid is one of the more common preservatives and it originally comes from rowanberries and mountain ash berries.  This acid is often sprayed onto the surface of the bread to inhibit mould growth.  Sorbic acid today, however, is often made by using Crotonaldehyde and Allyl Chloride.  The former, Crontondalehyde is a known irritant, and in America it is listed as ‘extremely hazardous substance’ [1] The latter, Allyl Chloride is made from propylene and chloride [2] , I would love to see the marketing gurus spin those words into an appetising advertisement for their client, the maker of the flat-breads with 6 weeks shelf life. In the past this Alllyl Chloride could be found in paint strippers and solvents. What makes this particular ingredient even worse is that today it gets used for making pesticides. It is highly toxic, highly flammable and may lead to possible impairment of vision [3]. I am not saying that companies in Australia are using Sorbic acid created in this way with 100% certainty, but when you consider the low cost of such products as flat breads it does have to make you wonder… I for one choose not to purchase these products anymore.

Calcium Propionate is another common preservative of breads and baked products.  It has been linked to autism, hyperactivity and dystonia – a neurological disorder that makes muscles spasm or contract involuntarily [4]. Sodium Benzoate is the final preservative to be discussed.  This chemical is considered to be healthy and I am not discrediting it for its health implications but you have to know that it is often used in the manufacturing of fireworks as a fuel for the whistle mix [5]. I am not sure, but I don’t know how well it sits with me that I am possibly consuming a product that plays a major role in celebrating the coming of the new year some 100 metres above my head.

It is fair to mention preservatives have been linked to skin issues including eczema, adenoidal congestion, irritability, inattention and attention deficit disorder [6]. Next time you are feeling out of sorts, just blame it on chicken and mayo wrap you had during your lunch break.

Without preservatives we increase our chances of getting sick if we consume products that have been made some time before we consume them – that is if we don’t know some common sense rules about how our food works.  Moisture and warmth promote bacterial growth in our baked products. If we allow our bread to be exposed to either or both we are putting ourselves at risk.  Does this mean we have a major dilemma to weigh up – do I find myself headed to the emergency room with food poisoning if I attempt to avoid preservatives or do I consume foods that have connections to pesticides and fireworks.  The answer for me is simple.  Avoid preservatives as much as you can.  Choose to either find a baker who makes bread preservative free or with preservatives made from natural ingredients (vinegar) or bake your own.  Once baked, allow your product to cool, slice it, bag it and freeze it. I realise this last suggestions runs counter to the lifestyle so many of us love and take for granted. Often we don’t make major changes to our diet unless the situation is dire i.e. cancer, diabetes or heart disease.  It seems ironic that the lifestyle we love often creates these conditions but it is a requirement that we must change them to live out a full and healthy life.  Why wait?

So – for my Dad refusing to eat bread more than a day old, it looks like there was something in that, after all.  Dad’s not perfect in his food choices and neither am I am but I guess the fact that we are making choices is great.  It is your choice to make informed decisions and know what is going on with the foods you eat.

Eat fresh, eat raw, eat organic, eat real food.

Damian McAvoy.

Reference List:

[2] Ludger Krähling, Jürgen Krey, Gerald Jakobson, Johann Grolig, Leopold Miksche “Allyl Compounds” in Ullmann’s Encyclopedia of Industrial Chemistry Wiley-VCH, Weinheim, 2005. Published online: 15 June 2000
[3]International Programme on Chemical Safety & the Commission of the European Communities. “Allyl Chloride”. International Chemical Safety Cards. © IPCS CEC 1993. Retrieved 13 February 2012. 
[4] D. F. MacFabe, D. P. Cain, K. Rodriguez-Capote, A. E. Franklin, J. E. Hoffman, F. Boon, A. R. Taylor, M. Kavaliers and K.-P. Ossenkopp (2007). “Neurobiological effects of intraventricular propionic acid in rats: Possible role of short-chain fatty acids on the pathogenesis and characteristics of autism spectrum disorders”. Behavioral Brain Research 176 (1):149–169.


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