It’s pretty commonly accepted, especially among the more health-conscious population that preservatives are bad…but what exactly makes them bad? Many of us have become increasingly aware over the last few years about the importance of our microbiome, the friendly micro-organisms that live in our guts and all over our bodies. The average person carries about 1.5 kg of bacteria, fungi and yeasts with them that make up their microbiome and the number of microbial cells often outnumber the human cells in our bodies. This microbiome performs many vital functions, it is an integral part of our immune system and modulates the production of many of our antibodies. Our gut flora manufactures the majority of our neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine that make us feel happy and motivated as well as many of the vitamins we require. Disturbances in the microbiome have been linked to conditions as diverse as ADHD, Autism, fussy eating, eczema, asthma, fibromyalgia, arthritis, depression and anxiety.
Our gut microbiome also plays an essential role in maintaining a healthy gut lining and ensuring our food is properly digested and absorbed. Our gut microbes produce enzymes that assist in our digestion. Thus, a healthy gut microbiome is a vital part of ensuring that we are well-nourished and have a healthy, strong body.
Preservatives are substances that are added to foods, cosmetics and pharmaceuticals/remedies to prolong their shelf-life and prevent spoilage. There are several types – antimicrobials, antioxidants and anti-enzymatic. Anti-microbials inhibit the growth of harmful microbes, examples include nitrates, nitrites, benzoates, sorbates, propionates, parabens, sulphites and sulphur dioxide. Antioxidants prevent the degradation of fats and oils so that they do not develop a rancid taste, examples include TBHQ, BHT and BHA. Anti-enzymatic inhibit the activity of enzymes that allow foods to keep ripening after harvest or go brown once cut, examples include citric acid and erythorbic acid. Preservatives are assigned the E numbers in the range E200 to E299 as well as E1105 (lysozyme).
Humans have been preserving foods for centuries. Naturally fermented sauerkraut and other natural pickles are preserved originally with salt and then by the lactic-acid produced by the probiotic bacteria that grow in the pickles. Salting and smoking of meat has been used for generations as a way to preserve it, as has drying. Drying is also a very effective way to preserve fruits and vegetables. Canning or bottling is also a long-used method. Freezing has been used in cold climates for centuries and more recently all over the globe since the invention of refrigerators.
Whilst old-fashioned methods of preserving foods prevented spoilage, by the time the foods were consumed they did not contain substances that inhibit microbial growth or enzyme activity. Modern artificial preservatives are chemicals, usually manufactured in factories, that that are added to foods in sufficient quantities to have their antioxidant, antimicrobial or anti-enzymatic effect. These chemicals are still present in the foods when we consume them. Once ingested these chemicals inhibit the growth of the friendly bacteria so instrumental to our health as well as our digestive enzymes. As such they interfere with all the essential functions performed by the gut microbes, such as immune system function and the production of feel-good neurotransmitters. By inhibiting the action of the bacteria that help us to digest our food as well as the enzymes we use to digest our food, preservatives lessen the effectiveness of our digestion so that we can extract less nutrition from our food.
In addition to this, many preservatives are in fact toxic to humans, which is why the concentrations in our foods are heavily regulated. The harmful health effects of various preservatives include triggering of asthma, allergic reactions, temper tantrums, disruptive behaviour, impaired foetal brain development, neurological damage in laboratory rats, DNA damage including to sperm and cancer. An increase in Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and type 2 Diabetes as well as loss of consciousness and death have also been associated with increased levels of nitrates in foods. The next time you’re doing your shopping, take the time to read the labels and look for what preservatives your family will be ingesting if you purchase the products you are considering. Remember that all our products carrying the Foodieness badge are completely free of all artificial preservatives, so with us, you can shop with peace of mind. If you’d like to read more about preservatives this is a lovely article.
Have you eliminated artificial preservatives from your family’s diet, personal care products and medicines? Did you experience any effects?