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Living with Food Preservatives

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How many times have you picked up a package of salami or a fruit drink and on a whim decided to read the label? Some of those words are pretty scary, not to mention unpronounceable. Like tertiary butylhodroquinone. And naturally, you wonder, is it safe to put those weird-sounding chemicals in your body? Are they synthetic or natural? Are they even necessary?

These complicated-sounding additives and many more that are still being used in the preservation of much of our processed food are believed to cause or exacerbate health problems. A vast number of studies have shown that very high doses of the synthetic tertiary butylhodroquinone, or TBHQ, may be carcinogenic, especially in causing stomach tumors. And then there are the other butyl cousins, butylated hydroxyanisole, or BHA, and butylated hydroxytoluene, or BHT, both of which have been studied extensively. The U.S. National Institutes of Health report that high doses of, “BHA is reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen based on evidence of carcinogenicity in experimental animals.” And the list of preservative culprits goes on and on.

The key words here are high doses. We don’t normally go into our cupboards looking for daily doses of carcinogens. So let’s be real; consuming five boxes of Cheez-its daily is not something we typically do. And to answer the question, are they necessary? The chemicals that we likely come across in our Famous Star with cheese, Dr. Pepper, or Hidden Valley Ranch Dressing are indeed there for a reason. They keep our food fresh and tasty. Who goes to the store to look for moldy bread or rancid olive oil? Or sour milk? “Oh hey, I searched the whole meat department last week because my Bon Appétit recipe called for rotten pancetta,” says no one ever.

And if that’s not enough to put your mind at ease, many of these misunderstood, much-maligned miscreants are actually antioxidants. You know, all those wonderful free-radical wranglers that scientists and nutritionists have been lauding now for the last few decades. Remember when those revelations immediately sent us to the market for large doses of blueberries, tomatoes, kale and green tea? Just like anything else, if we consume large doses of anything, we stand a chance of inviting toxicity. I know that if I drink a lot of wine (ethanol), I’m going to get sick. Yes, moderation is the key for most things in life.

And who hasn’t met the evil twins, nitrates and nitrites, the two gangsters of the processed meat industry? These bad boys are added to foods to prevent them from going rancid or cultivating nasty bacteria. Sodium nitrate and sodium nitrite, as their names imply, are both a form of salt, which has been used for eons as meat preservatives. The two are only different by a few oxygen atoms and work much the same way by inhibiting the growth of dangerous bacteria such as Clostridium botulinum and Listeria monocytogenes. They are classified by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as preservatives that can safely improve meat quality. However, the Mayo Clinic associates these salty thugs with some health concerns, worse, I suppose, than mortality by microbes. Research has shown that sodium nitrate can increase your risk of developing heart disease and sodium nitrite can raise your risk for diabetes. 

But naturally, there’s a flip side. The USDA deems banning nitrates and nitrites unsafe due to their role in preventing botulism, the nastiest of the nasty. These and other additives act as either antimicrobials or antioxidants or both. They either inhibit the activity of or kill bacteria, molds and other microorganisms. The USDA certainly does not want us to get sick from E. coli so they just allow lower amounts of preservatives to be added to processed meats, while at the same time encouraging us to eat fresh, lean meat instead of processed. That’s all well and good, but nothing speaks road trip to me like a cache of Slim Jims. 

In our demand for everything natural and all things organic, plant-derived food preservatives seem to be the new trend. But is it really new? In days of old, natural preservatives, such as vinegar, citrus, salt and sugar, were traditionally used to preserve food. Here’s the big surprise: While processed meat is commonly considered the largest source of nitrates in the American diet, vegetables actually contain much higher levels of nitrate. In fact, the best contemporary preservative for processed meats is derived from our old garden friends, celery and swiss chard, and has been for centuries. Producers are getting smarter about being in tune with what the consumer wants and are labeling products with celery or swiss chard powder instead of nitrates and nitrites. Even still, science says there is no difference between synthetic and plant-based nitrates; they all play out in the body just the same.                  

So, as always, we should just use our best research and judgment, with a heathy dose of common sense, to muddle through the mire of information and science to figure out what is best for us and our families. As for me, I will still throw a bag of LAY’S Kettle Cooked Jalapeño chips and a package of Oreos in my cart from time to time, washing them down with a good bottle of ethanol. Nothing like a good food and wine pairing, I always say. In moderation, of course.

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