Preservatives have augmented our favorite foods for thousands of years. Those sugary sweet jams your grandmother may have pulled down from her larder each Christmas or New Year’s breakfast, or the canned salted meats that served as a backup for many early American pioneers during seasons when hunting was sparse, are actually some of the later examples of traditional food preservation.
Observant Jews have been using salt to preserve their meats for years. While it is a religious prescription to do so, the act of “koshering,” or soaking and heavily salting chicken, lamb or beef prior to use, also serves as ‘magic potent’ that guards against food spoilage during transport, storage and preparation. Sugar has been used not just as a preservatives in canning, but also as a antimicrobial agent to promote healing in wounds. Both uses gain their popularity from sugar’s inhibition of microbial spoilage.
The Korean fermented vegetable dish called kimchi is another example of ancient food preservation at work. The dish, which uses salt and pickling methods for vegetables (often in clay crocks, and traditionally in the ground), has been around since the third century A.D. Kimchi lovers swear by its nutritional and medicinal properties, which are touted to cure constipation and provide balance to the intestinal system. In hot, humid environments across the globe, pickled foods of all kinds serve as an important means for ensuring enough vitamins and fiber in the common diet.
In the last century however, increased food production and changing technology has prompted food producers to search out other ways to guard against food spoilage and extend shelf life. Many of these additives began as natural derivatives that were later engineered as artificial or chemical substances.
Food preservatives: The call for federal regulation
Of course, the concept of using ingredients to artificially retard spoilage in food has not always been popular with consumers. In fact, the push-back against creating artificial, mass-produced preservative compounds has been around just as long as the search for better preservation methods has existed.
The federal Food and Drug Act that now regulates the use of preservatives in the United States owes its origins to just such a backlash in the early 1900s, when the then largely unknown writer, Upton Sinclair, released his book “The Jungle” in 1906. Although Sinclair’s story actually had to do with the exploitation of immigrants in food-packing plants (and other industries), it was the unsanitary conditions of those plants and the largely unregulated substances that were being added to food that actually galvanized public outcry. Sinclair’s graphically depicted novel not only launched his writing career, but also forced the federal government to recognize the need for further testing and regulation of the preservatives being added to human foods. The Pure Food Act, born out of the populist support for safe and wholesome foods, gave rise to the creation of the FDA as well as the Meat Inspection Act that same year.
While the FDA regulates more than what can be added to the foods we purchase and eat, its oversight has, through the years, prompted acceptance of a wide selection of ingredients that, of their own, aren’t meant to add nutritional value to the product. Instead, they serve to artificially bolster the production and shelf life of foods.
But are artificial preservatives always good for us?
The use of artificial preservatives like butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA), nitrates and benzoic acid, which are all used by food manufacturers to slow maturation or spoilage, have been a subject of vigorous debate in past years, particularly as their functions and effects have become better understood.
For example, we now know that nitrate, which naturally occurs in leafy vegetables (and is actually good for us), creates carcinogenic properties when added to red meats. BHA, used in everything from bread to medications, can also be toxic, particularly when ingested in large amounts.
The preservative benzoic acid came into existence when the 16th century seer Nostradamus was working with bitter almonds to produce amygdalin. Today, benzoic acid is synthetically produced. While it is widely used as a preservative, it now falls under the category of suspect additives because of its potential to create benzene when paired with ascorbic acid (Vitamin C).
Few additives can illustrate the confusion over synthetic additives and their risks than Ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid (ETDA), a substance that is often used in chelation, but is also considered a preservative. Its unexpected benefit to food manufacturers comes in its ability to hinder the production of benzene in soft drinks that contain benzoic acid.
21st-century food production: Can we live without preservatives?
New technology has also helped reduce the excess of salt, sugar and honey in foods, which carry with them their own health risks. Products that meet the needs of certain health conditions, such as diabetes and heart disease, continue to add challenge for food producers, who want to appeal to a broader consumer base. So do new processing guidelines that require better separation and identification of allergens such as wheat, milk and nuts, as well as preservatives like malic acid (another natural substance now largely manufactured artificially) that pose health risks for some consumers.
‘New’ processing techniques like flash freezing and hermetically sealed containers help answer some of these challenges. Foods that can be sealed in hermetic packages or flash frozen without water, sugar or salt can appeal to a broader sector of customers. Irradiation (also called cold pasturization), which is often mistakenly confused with radioactive procedures, helps preserve foods that are susceptible to mold or pests and reduces the needs for expensive product preparation. Hydrogen peroxide, used for years as a food preservative in limited settings, can now be used to safeguard bananas and other fresh fruits and vegetables before they reach the store aisle.
Preservatives will likely always play a role in our food preparation. Expanding global markets and increased demand for food production that can meet the rigor of long distance transport means we must have ways to safeguard the products prior to consumption. But better technology and a better understanding of the chemical interactions in preservatives are natural outcomes of searching for better ways to improve global food security.
Want to try some preservation of your own? Check out the recipe below!