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Top 5 Harmful Food Preservatives to Avoid

WELL BEING: Top 5 Harmful Food Preservatives to Avoid

By Maimuna Katuka Aliyu,

The National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC), established by Decree 15 of 1993, regulates and controls the manufacture, importation, exportation, distribution, advertisement, sale, and use of food, drugs, cosmetics, chemicals, medical devices, and packaged water in Nigeria.

Recently, NAFDAC issued a stern warning against the use of harmful chemicals for food preservation, highlighting the severe health risks these substances pose.

This advisory is crucial as the agency aims to protect consumers from the dangers of toxic food preservatives that unscrupulous traders might use.

Food preservatives are used to extend the shelf life of products, preventing spoilage caused by microbial growth or undesirable chemical changes.

While some preservatives are derived from natural sources like bacteria, plants, and common kitchen staples such as salt and sugar, others are synthetically produced and can be harmful to human health.

The need for preservatives has grown with the increase in global food distribution, which requires foods to remain fresh for longer periods during transportation and storage.

Below are five top chemicals considered harmful for food preservation:

1. Sodium Benzoate: Commonly used in processed foods and beverages, sodium benzoate is an odorless, crystalline powder made by combining benzoic acid and sodium hydroxide. It is linked to DNA damage, metabolic disorders, and cancer, making it hazardous to human health. Sodium benzoate can form benzene, a known carcinogen, under certain conditions, particularly in the presence of ascorbic acid (vitamin C). This makes its presence in soft drinks and fruit juices particularly concerning.

2. Potassium Bromate: An oxidizing agent used to improve dough in baked goods, potassium bromate residue remains minimal if the product is properly baked. However, it can cause kidney and thyroid problems and is a potential carcinogen. Despite its effectiveness in strengthening dough and enhancing the rise of bread, potassium bromate has been banned in many countries due to its cancer-causing properties. In regions where it is still permitted, strict regulations govern its use, but compliance can sometimes be an issue.

3. Formaldehyde: A colorless, strong-smelling chemical used in building materials, formaldehyde is harmful to health, causing symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, and respiratory issues. Its use in food preservation is particularly dangerous. Formaldehyde is sometimes used illegally to preserve fish and other seafood, which can lead to serious health issues for consumers. Long-term exposure to formaldehyde is linked to cancer, making its use in food a significant health hazard.

4. Butylated Hydroxyanisole (BHA): This synthetic antioxidant is used to prevent oils and fats from becoming rancid. BHA is detrimental to health, potentially causing cancer, liver and kidney damage, and hormonal imbalances. BHA is found in a wide range of foods, from cereals to snack foods, and its potential to disrupt endocrine function is a major concern. Studies have shown that BHA can cause tumors in the forestomach of animals, raising questions about its safety for human consumption.

5. Butylated Hydroxytoluene (BHT): Another antioxidant used as a preservative in foods, animal feed, and various products, BHT can cause liver and kidney damage and may be carcinogenic. BHT is similar to BHA and is often used in conjunction with it to enhance its effectiveness. While both compounds are generally recognized as safe (GRAS) by some food safety authorities, ongoing research continues to reveal potential health risks associated with their consumption.

These preservatives are found in foods like processed meats, baked goods, and beverages. However, some countries have banned or restricted their use due to health concerns. Consumers are advised to read food labels carefully and avoid products containing these harmful preservatives when possible.

NAFDAC’s Director General, Prof. Mojisola Adeyeye, emphasized that the use of toxic substances like dichlorvos can have fatal consequences.

She urged traders and merchants to avoid using unauthorized chemicals on food meant for human consumption. Dichlorvos, commonly known as DDVP, is an organophosphate pesticide that is highly toxic to humans and animals. Its use in food preservation is illegal and poses severe health risks, including respiratory distress, neurological damage, and death.

Instead, alternative methods for preserving food, such as using bio-pesticides, are recommended as safer options.

Bio-pesticides are derived from natural materials such as animals, plants, bacteria, and certain minerals. They are generally less toxic than conventional pesticides, decompose more quickly, and can be an effective component of integrated pest management (IPM) programs.

Furthermore, traditional methods such as drying, salting, and fermenting can be effective and safer alternatives for preserving food. For instance, drying fruits and vegetables can extend their shelf life without the need for chemical preservatives.

Similarly, fermentation processes, such as making sauerkraut or yogurt, not only preserve food but also enhance its nutritional value by increasing beneficial probiotics.

Food that remains unspoiled for an extended period might indicate pesticide contamination rather than freshness, unless stored in the refrigerator.

It is essential for consumers to be vigilant and skeptical of foods that appear unnaturally fresh or have an unusually long shelf life. Proper refrigeration and adhering to safe food handling practices can significantly reduce the need for chemical preservatives and enhance food safety.

In conclusion, while preservatives play a crucial role in extending the shelf life of food products, it is essential to be aware of the potential health risks associated with certain chemicals. Opting for natural preservatives and safer alternatives can help reduce these risks and promote better health.

Consumers should stay informed and make conscious choices to avoid harmful preservatives and support practices that ensure food safety and public health.