Noting the passage of the creator of the Doritos chip who recently died at the ripe old age of 97, Glenn Reynolds quips, “I think the preservatives in junk food keep you young.”
Actually, there is reason to suspect that he might be right.
One of the most common preservatives is butylated hydroxyanisole also know has BHA or E320 in food labeling. BHA keeps foods from growing rancid by preventing the oxidation of fats by oxygen free radicals.
Say, what do you call a substances that controls oxygen free radicals? It’s right on the tip of my tongue…
… Oh, right, an anti-oxidant! You know, those things every other organic food product is advertised as having.
Benzoic acid, probably most commonly seen as Sodium Benzoate (E211) is another common bugaboo. In fact, its probably the poster child preservative being one whose name most people will recognize.
Benzoic acid is a naturally occurring substance originally extracted in the 1600s from brushes such as Lindera benzoin, also known as Common Spice Bush, which grows all over North America. Benzoic acid is an anti-fungal and anti-bacterial agent generated by plants in response to microbial attack. Apples produce rather a lot of it. It slows microbe growth in acidic mediums like fruit juices, pickles and your stomach acid. It’s an all natural, low grade, antibiotic that you consume whenever you eat many food plants. Oh, the horror!
It never seems to occur to the hysterical advocates of [sic] natural foods that preservatives preserve by keeping foods as close to their natural, fresh and alive state as possible. In fact, that’s pretty much what “preserve” means in the context of food. It follows that they will do the same thing inside the human body. Butylated hydroxyanisole will absorb dangerous free radicals anywhere in the body and Sodium Benzoate will help you fend off microbes in your stomach. Both functions are clearly more beneficial, and obviously working on a much more significant scale, than any highly hypothetical harm they might do. Plus, they fend off very real harms like food poisoning. The tradeoff is a no-brainer.
Heck, preservatives are even good for the environment because they reduce food waste, which reduces the environmental impact associated with producing more food to replace wasted food.
Balanced against these obvious and unquestionable benefits is the highly dubious claims that preservatives cause any harm whatsoever. Every time I read something about preservatives causing harm, I see nothing but “possibly”, “might”, “conceivably” and other qualifiers that make it clear that no hard evidence exists. Preservatives are consumed by billions of people for decades. That is the biggest epidemiological sample imaginable. If food preservatives actually caused harm, even if only to a small subset of the population, we would have firm, unquestioned evidence by now. But we don’t have the evidence, so they don’t cause the harm.
So, don’t skip the food preservatives, they preserve you as well.