Preserve Yourself With Preservatives

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.

15 thoughts on “Preserve Yourself With Preservatives”

  1. My grandson read a food wrapper that advertised “no preservatives.”

    “Grandpa,” he asked, “what are preservatives?”

    “Chemicals that they use to keep the food from spoiling and going stale.” I answered.

    “So,” he asks with a quizzical look, “why are they bragging about NOT having them?”

    “Exactly!” I answered.

  2. I get a kick out of reading the ingredients on a package of “Grandma’s Cookies” – didn’t know she was into chemicals so heavily!

  3. So, around the turn of the 19th/20th Century, people had few or no preservatives in their foods and a life expectency of 46 years!

    Now, with many preservatives in food, the life span is at 77 years and increasing!

    So what wrong with that picture of complaining about preservatives?

  4. I remember the stories from the Viet Nam War.

    The corpses of the Viet Cong, who ate “organic” rice, would decompose in a matter of hours.

    The corpses of our boys would stay “fresh” for days in the heat and humidity.

    Morbid thought, but maybe there’s something there?

  5. While I too acknowledge the benefits of all these chemical preservatives I have to wonder what the long term effects to the body (especially the nervous system) having all these foreign chemicals intermixed and circulating in you.

    Just like having your row of 20 pills to take in the morning; is there any way the FDA could possibly test for every combination and dosage?

    of course not.

    That they are beneficial is no question but the side effects?

    Jeff Foxworthy had a great routine on one of the typical drug TV commercials a the warning part – diarrhea, dry skin, headaches, etc, etc ;-)

    @Whithall – never heard anything about that 0 and it is a bit macabre.

  6. Bill Brand,

    “While I too acknowledge the benefits of all these chemical preservatives I have to wonder what the long term effects to the body (especially the nervous system) having all these foreign chemicals intermixed and circulating in you.”

    “All natural” foods have gobs of “foreign” especially food derived from plants. Plants don’t have feet so they protect themselves from predation by loading up there tissues with toxins. There are several million plant species on earth and only a little under of thousand have low enough levels of toxins to be edible. Of those, fewer than 100 provide 99% of human plant foods. All domestic food plants have been extensively breed to reduce their toxins to acceptable levels.

    We eat so many toxins and proven carcinogens from natural sources that dusting on a few more with trivial risk levels won’t do any harm.

  7. Shannon – it isn’t all the natural toxins I worry about – all those chemicals with 20 letters or more made by man ;-)

    Years ago in the Army during a survival course they told me something I never forgot – on eating plants – if the inside is milky don’t eat it – if clear – OK –

    Your stomach may complain but you will be OK


  8. Alcohol seems to lower risk of food poisoning

    === ===
    In a similar incident, Desenclos and his colleagues studied an outbreak of illness caused by people eating oysters contaminated with shigella or salmonella. The researchers found that “After controlling for potential confounders, a protective effect for beverages that have an alcohol concentration greater than 10% was found, but no protective effect was found for beverages with an alcohol concentration less than 10%.”

    Thus, it appears that the higher the alcoholic content or proof of the beverage, the more protective it is against food poisoning.
    === ===

  9. Bill Brandt Says:

    Shannon – it isn’t all the natural toxins I worry about – all those chemicals with 20 letters or more made by man ;-)

    The idea that “natural” substances can’t harm you is pure superstition with no empirical basis at all. All spices, for example, are toxins produced by plants to kill insects and to make mammals and birds ill so they will stop eating them. All spices contain compounds that would be considered significantly carcinogenic if they were manmade. Heck,the only thing that keeps people from poisoning themselves with spices is that they evolved to produce stomach irritation. If you managed to keep a few tablespoons of cinnamon down, you would probably wreck your liver as it purge all the toxins in cinnamon.

    It’s doubly superstitious to think that long chemical names indicate something that is safe. Chemical names aren’t mere labels like “car” or “bread” they are in fact descriptions of the component elements and their molecular structure. Since biochemicals tend to be very large, the chemical names for natural substances are even longer than those for man-made names.

    The idea that natural chemicals are intrinsically safe in same kind of low quantity but long term exposures that we get with preservatives is without scientific basis. It’s not even plausible on the chemical level.

    All of this is pure superstition.

  10. @Shannon – on that note it could also be said that anything not in moderation can kill you – even water. A few years ago here a woman died drinking too much water – it ended up washing all the salt out of her system – she did it trying to win this contest offered by a radio show.

    A jury awarded her family millions (how the concept of individual responsibility and common sense disappeared could be the subject of a provocative post here) – but the fact remains – water killed her.

  11. Between the preservatives in junk food and the protection alcohol provides against food poisoning… I may live to see 150.

  12. A lot of people who practice traditional blacksmithing as a kind of hobby or niche career have noticed and commented on the anecdotal evidence that blacksmiths live a long time and seem to be in pretty good shape. Given all the metals etc. in coal smoke this is kind of counter-intuitive and may, of course, merely be the human brain perceiving patterns where there aren’t any. However, a friend of mine used to reply that it was the very coal smoke that did it. “It’s kind of like the preservatives in a twinky, those things will last forever.”

  13. Bill Brandt:

    anything not in moderation can kill you – even water

    That’s an excellent point. It also nicely supports Shannon’s argument and completely undermines your worry about “foreign chemicals”.

    Water is as simple and natural as it gets; it’s the most essential component of life. But as with all things, the dose makes the poison.

    Just about any chemical, “natural” or “artificial” can harm you in sufficient doses. The difference is that the artificial ones have generally undergone extensive testing to see if they have measurable negative health effects.

    By any objective measure, food additives are safer than countless other substances we consume every day. It’s entirely conceivable that peaches, for a random example, could have some trace phytochemical that will take a year off your life if you eat five of them every day for years on end. But only a paranoid fool would worry about such a thing.

    If you’re going to be concerned about processed food, there is far more evidence for harm due to things we take out of food (like fiber), or things we concentrate to huge doses (like sugar) than for any trace chemicals that we put into it.

    If you want to create an arbitrary separation between trace chemicals you consider “foreign” and those you don’t and eat accordingly, that’s certainly your choice. But recognize that you’ve made an essentially religious decision, not a scientific one. I’ve got no problem with religious beliefs — I’ve have a few of my own and some of them are doozies — but I recognize them for what they are.

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