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Preservatives - necessary or avoidable?

Today, I wanted to give my child fresh juice as her evening drink but, thanks to a very hectic day at work, settled for a tetra pack instead. I wish I could at least read the label on the pack. Let us admit this today. We all have gulped down loads and loads of packed juices without even reading the list of preservatives listed on them or realizing how much fresh juice actually goes into making them. On another occasion my mom made a very tasty pickle at home yesterday that again due to a hectic schedule I could not go and taste. Still craving for it though I promptly bought one from the neighborhood grocery store. These are just two examples of our necessary dependence on processed food due to demands of our hectic lifestyles.

My kids are attracted to colorful, fancy foods found on supermarket shelves these days. And they want to eat it every day. Therefore, I prefer buying stuff that would have a longer shelf life. For the retailer as well, most of the products specifying a shell life of 2-3 days might just go off the shelf in no time.  That is where the many PRESERVATIVES being used in today’s products coming into the picture. Yes, these additives enhance shelf life of almost everything we consume but considering the many known and unknown ill effects of these chemically derived products, their usefulness especially when it comes to products for kids is highly debatable.

Preservatives are components added to our food that break the natural process of decay and help conserve the freshness and goodness of processed foods, enhance the taste or keep the color intact. Some examples include Nitrites, Sulphites, Butylated Hydroxyanisole (BHA), Butylated Hydroxytoluene (BHT), Ascorbic acid, Tocopherols, Antioxidants, Artificial Colourings, Benzoate Preservatives and many others. We all know about the presence of these chemicals in almost everything we eat nowadays. But have we wondered whether they are safe? One response that I often get is that these all approved by authorities for consumption and hence must be safe for consumption. Well, I smile and ask in turn why sugary foods cause tooth decay for some when they are in fact approved by authorities for our regular consumption.

For centuries, people have enhanced their foods with various flavorings, preservatives, and dyes. But some ingredients on today’s food labels can be downright scary. Few foods reach today’s supermarkets free of additives while some are loaded. The good news is that in harmony with the global food standards of Codex Alimentarius Commission and WHO, the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) has laid down several regulations for the use of preservatives. FSSAI, under the Health Ministry, has fixed the maximum limit for use of additives in various food groups to ensure the acceptable daily intake is not exceeded. The bad news is that some of them are still questionable in whatever quantities used.

Let’s talk a bit about the most promised or rather the most popular and cheapest additive used, Soy Lecithin, also known as E322 which contains almost 35% soy oil on average. Is that good or bad? Let’s not judge it but we have the right to evaluate it at least. Soy is one of the most frequently genetically modified plants and is also one of the most contaminated with pesticides. Additionally, in order to create soy lecithin, raw soy beans are first subjected to the activity of hexane, a chemical compound and then subjected to the activity of hydrogen peroxide. Are these chemical present in soy lecithin in the form of production process residue? Unfortunately, there are no reliable and credible sources regarding this matter.

Similarly, there is a general adverse effect of artificial food coloring and benzoate preservatives on the behavior of 3- year- old children resulting in hyperactivity disorder in children, a study by Bateman et al, 2004 from The University of Southampton. 

Another study by Boris et al in Annals of allergy depicts the same story. Artificial coloring making food very attractive might result in dermatitis, asthma, urticaria and gastrointestinal symptoms. 

So, it is prudent that everyone, especially parents, learn more about these additives, look out for them on the labels of the food to be consumed, avoid them as much as possible, and search for information on healthier alternatives. FAO/WHO states that do read the Acceptable daily intake (ADI) of a chemical once you go out to supermarkets. Rather go for natural preservative methods like canning, bottling, pasteurization, freezing, boiling, steaming, baking, poaching, refrigeration or natural additives like salt, sugar, vinegar and seasonings. Better still find alternatives that completely natural and free from any preservatives, artificial colors, or flavors.

Why should we be in a dilemma- Have I done justice to myself and my kid?


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