Keeping Food Fresh since Ancient Egypt- Food Preservation and The Good and Bad on Added Preservative

When you pick up a “grain and fruit” bar and look at the ingredients, you see more than just grain and fruit. Most packaged foods have preservatives and additives added to make them last longer, stop bacteria from growing, improve the texture or enhance taste.

The earliest recorded instance of food preservation dates back to ancient Egypt where they dried grains and stored it in silos. Fermentation, pickling, salting, and smoking are all ancient techniques. Before frozen foods were introduced in the 1900's they would refrigerate items in caves and under cool water. In the 1940s vacuum sealing was introduced. It wasn't until the year 2000 that chemicals were introduced into the process.

Freezing, dehydrating, vacuum sealing and canning are a few physical methods of preserving food which makes it edible longer than it would be just left fresh. Chemical preservation is when ingredients are added to a food. Both physical and chemical preservation prevents deterioration of food, protects against spoilage from mold, yeast, botulism and other organisms that can cause food poisoning.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) classifies both natural preservatives (for example, from lemon juice, salt and sugar) and artificial preservatives as “chemical preservatives.” While many common preservatives occur naturally, manufacturers often use synthetic versions of these chemicals. All preservatives added must be listed on the ingredient list using the common name and must be identified as a preservative or the function listed such as “calcium sorbate (to retain freshness)”

Preservatives are all GRAS, which is “generally recognized as safe” by the FDA. That’s defined as “a reasonable certainty in the minds of competent scientists that the substance is not harmful under the intended conditions of use.” Still, there are some concerns. More recent studies look at how artificial preservatives effect your endocrine system, which includes all of the glands in your body that produce hormones, aka potential endocrine disrupters.

Sodium benzoate is one concerning preservative. Often used in jams and hot sauces but a 2007 study published in The Lancet suggests sodium benzoate may increase hyperactivity in young children.

Another common preservative, BHA, is listed by the National Toxicology Program as “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen,” but the FDA considers it a GRAS substance in minute quantities. Meanwhile BHT, the powdered version of BHA, has been banned in some countries. A study from Cedars-Sinai looked at three preservatives and if they would disrupt hormones that can lead to obesity. BHT was found to have the strongest detrimental effects to hormone signals that tell someone they are full, and BHT is commonly found in breakfast cereal!

Sodium nitrite and nitrate is used in processed meats like hot dogs, bologna, turkey, ham, salami and bacon. Studies have linked eating large amounts of processed meats with an increased risk of colorectal cancer. We always have to look at total diet, but eating a Buddig brand turkey sandwich every day for 10 years is a bad idea. You buy cheap meat, it comes with extras- in the form of preservatives and additives.

TBHQ is used as an antioxidant in fats and oils to prevent spoilage and as a stabilizer in cosmetics. Even the National Library of Medicine states that in rats fed TBHQ in the diet, it caused liver enlargement. A Michigan University professor is studying TBHQ’s effect on allergies. Her research has shown that TBHQ can cause T cells, a critical part of the body’s immune system, to release a set of proteins that can trigger allergies to such foods as nuts, milk, eggs, wheat and shellfish.

Foods labeled organic can use natural preservatives. A common one is rosemary extract. The extracts slow spoilage of fats and oils without changing the taste of the food. As the food industry looks for more natural food preservatives to replace chemical options like BHT and TBHQ, options like rosemary extract are growing in popularity.

If you want to reduce your intake of preservatives like BHT and nitrites, look for foods label organic, especially packaged foods like crackers, bread and cereal. Try naturally preserving fresh cooked meats, soups and baked goods by freezing them. Here are four steps to properly freeze food.

  1. Cool foods "slightly" at room temperature before refrigeration. If the food is a soup or stew, pour leftovers in a shallow pan to cool slightly before refrigeration. Skim off fat that forms at the top to help preserve the food even longer since fat shortens the frozen food lifespan.

  2. Transfer chilled food to one-quart freezer bags. The smaller serving will freeze faster. Use a permanent marker to write the food, amount and date on the bag.

  3. Freeze fast! The slower the process, the poorer the quality of the food once it is thawed. Arrange bags or containers in a single layer in the freezer to allow enough room for air to circulate around them so food will freeze rapidly. Most cooked dishes will keep for three months in the freezer.

  4. Defrost food in the refrigerator or in the microwave. Allow for about five hours per pound of food when defrosting in refrigerator.

Also mentioned in this show, the Food Saver vacuum sealer. Handy for freezing foods longer and saving freezer space.

Click here to hear the full episode.

#preservatives #76 #freezing #mealprep