Food preservatives always seem to receive such bad press, but do their critics realise just how vital they are and that they have actually been used for centuries? Unless we all have access to farm fresh food and homegrown fruit and vegetables, it is almost impossible to avoid preservatives, as they are needed to maintain the freshness and shelf-life of such food products.
Since ancient times, preservatives have been used in the form of salt and sugar to cure meat and fish and conserve fruits. Nowadays, there are many other types of preservatives used but the aim is still the same – to prevent spoilage. We always hear of debates about how safe preservatives are but without preservatives, food safety would actually become a major problem and incidences of food poisoning would increase dramatically.
Preservatives are used as either antimicrobials or antioxidants, or both. As antimicrobials, they prevent the growth of moulds, yeasts and bacteria. As antioxidants, they prevent food from becoming rancid, browning or developing black spots.
Some commonly used preservatives in the UK include nitrites and nitrates, which are mostly used in cured meats, butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA) and butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT), found in fats and oils, and benzoates, which are found in soft drinks, ice-cream and margarine. As well as keeping our food safe and free from spoilage, benzoates may even help to prevent tooth decay when combined with fluoride.
Another group of food preservatives that may sound more familiar and indeed surprising, are the antioxidants, which include vitamins A, C and E. These are quite a bonus when added to food as they are thought to be beneficial in the prevention of coronary heart disease and some cancers.
The use of preservatives and other food additives is controlled by EC regulations so only those that are approved can be used, and there is a limit on the amounts used in foodstuffs. So it looks like preservatives aren’t that bad after all – in fact, they may even be doing you some good.