Preservatives are “additived” to my don’t-eat list

I wanted to write a blog post about the other side of the preservatives story – the one that balances the benefits of making food last longer (saving money, safer food, less spoilage) with possible ill effects of being exposed to chemicals our bodies aren’t adapted to handle.

I don’t want to be alarmist. If you’re wondering whether your food is “safe”, I’d say yes, it’s pretty safe. You’re unlikely to keel over and die because of exposure to a preservative. And if you don’t have access to fresh food year-round, food containing preservatives is certainly preferable to no food at all. But nothing you toss down your pie-hole is inert; everything affects your body somehow. You might not see acute effects, which makes it difficult to tease out the long-term ones.

(Side note: don’t believe me? Check out this video that shows the difference between digesting chemically preserved foods versus natural foods. On the left is Gatorade, ramen noodles and gummy bears. On the right is a homemade hibiscus drink, homemade noodles in broth and gummy bears made from juice.)

As I checked my usual sources for reliable nutrition information, it became obvious that preservatives aren’t a hot topic, at least in Canada. A search on the Dietitians of Canada website turned up nothing; EatRight Ontario offers this helpful advice: “Choosing to avoid or limit foods with preservatives is a personal choice” while acknowledging some studies have linked some preservatives to ADHD in children. The site also links to Health Canada’s Food Additive Dictionary, “an alphabetical listing of all food additives that are thought to be safe for use in Canada.” Thought.

Marion Nestle doesn’t touch on preservatives in her book What to Eat; maybe that’s because we shouldn’t eat them. (That’s tongue-in-cheek, by the way). Michael Pollan, journalist and author of In Defense of Food and Food Rules deals with preservatives through these points:

An ingredient label for El Monterey Taquitos containing more than 35 ingredients

One of my favourite labels listing the 35+ ingredients in El Monterey Taquitos frozen snacks

  • Eat only foods that will eventually rot
  • Avoid food products containing ingredients that are a) unfamiliar, b) unpronounceable, c) more than five in number or that include d) high-fructose corn syrup
  • If it came from a plant eat it, if it was made in a plant, don’t
  • Avoid ingredients you wouldn’t keep in the pantry

Armed with this (lack of) information, I jumped onto the Health Canada additive dictionary linked above, where I learned a few important things about food additives (of which preservatives are one type):

  • An “additive”, by definition, is a synthetic (not natural) chemical. Not a food.
  • Additives can be used just to make a food more attractive.

These two points make the rest of my Natural Disaster journey straightforward, at least when it comes to food additives: don’t eat any of them. They’re certainly not natural; they’re not food; and most have been in our food supply fewer than 100 years. And they’re being added to food not only to preserve nutrients or keep a food from spoiling (saving lives and money); they also function to make food visually appealing. So, just like make-up, perfume and body products (think shampoo and hair gel), we’re adding to our chemical load purely for aesthetics.

Cover image of Twinkie Deconstructed book

Twinkie, Deconstructed (2007) by Steve Ettlinger

Though he doesn’t delve into the healthfulness (or lack thereof) of food additives, this would be a good place to mention Steve Ettlinger’s eye-opening book Twinkie, Deconstructed. It offers a glimpse into the ridiculously complex and un-natural processes used to make food additives. Chapter 19 deals with Polysorbate 60, which is an approved additive in Canada made from corn, palm oil, and petroleum (!). You want to talk “processed food”? It takes Ettlinger 10 page to cover the process of making it, including hydrogenation, pressing, hydrolyzation, fractionation, and more hydrogenation for the corn and palm oil alone.

After my preliminary research, I have to conclude there’s a gap in our collective knowledge when it comes to preservatives. Perhaps we’re too focused on specific nutrients (low fat/high protein/source of lutein, etc.) to notice the factory-made hitchhikers that come with them. Unless you’re scrutinizing labels, you’re likely ingesting a cocktail of chemicals with your food every day. And from what I can tell, there aren’t many studies on the safety of these chemicals alone, let alone in combination.

That doesn’t sit right with me.

Preservatives have already thwarted my efforts to find a natural loaf of bread. I’ll talk more about specific preservatives as I encounter them.

How about you? Do preservatives factor in the equation when you’re grocery shopping?


References & further reading:

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