Augmenting food with preservatives is not a recent practice. For thousands of years, we have canned fruits with sugar, preserved meats with salt, and pickled vegetables so that they could keep in hot humid environments.
Nevertheless, using various additives to retard spoilage in food has been controversial for a long time. The Pure Food Act, which gave rise to the creation of the FDA in 1906, was in part a response to the use of unregulated substances to preserve food.
In the modern era, a variety of chemical additives show up as preservatives in the foods we eat. Nitrates, benzoic acid, ETDA, and BHA all appear on food labels. And all are the subject of vigorous debate as we learn more about the possible side effects of such substances. But for that matter, even traditional preservatives like salt and sugar can pose health risks for many consumers.
Modern food processing technologies are offering alternatives to chemical preservation. Techniques like flash freezing, hermetic sealing, and cold pasteurization can all extend the shelf life of foods without the addition of chemicals. And ordinary hydrogen peroxide is now considered a good way to safeguard some kinds of fresh produce in transit.
Preservatives will always play a role in our food system. With increasing globalization and growing demand for food products, our foods have to be able to stand up to long distance transportation and complex distribution systems and still remain safe for consumption. Better preservation technologies and increased understanding of the chemical interactions in preservatives are important parts of our efforts to improve global food security.
Photo, posted November 4, 2009, courtesy of The Delicious Life via Flickr.
Earth Wise is a production of WAMC Northeast Public Radio (Preservatives).