preservative

preservative

[pri-zur-vuh-tiv]

Any of numerous chemical additives used to prevent or slow food spoilage caused by chemical changes (e.g., oxidation, mold growth) and maintain a fresh appearance and consistency. Antimycotics (e.g., sodium and calcium propionate, sorbic acid) inhibit mold growth; antioxidants (e.g., butylated hydroxytoluene or BHT) delay rancidity in foods containing fats and oils; antibiotics (e.g., tetracyclines) prevent bacterial growth; humectants retain moisture in products like shredded coconut; and antistaling agents (e.g., glyceryl monostearate) maintain moisture and softness in baked goods. Some preservatives also improve the appearance of the product (e.g., sodium nitrate and nitrite in meats).

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A preservative is a natural or synthetic chemical that is added to products such as foods, pharmaceuticals, paints, biological samples, wood, etc. to prevent decomposition by microbial growth or by undesirable chemical changes.

Preservatives in wood

Preservatives may be added to wood to prevent the growth of fungi as well as to repel insects and termites. Typically arsenic, copper, chromium, borate, and petroleum based chemical compounds are used. For more information on wood preservatives, see timber treatment, lumber, and creosote.

Preservatives in foods

Preservative food additives can be used alone or in conjunction with other methods of food preservation. Preservatives may be anti-microbial preservatives, which inhibit the growth of bacteria and fungi, or antioxidants such as oxygen absorbers, which inhibit the oxidation of food constituents. Common anti-microbial preservatives include calcium propionate, sodium nitrate, sodium nitrite, sulfites (sulfur dioxide, sodium bisulfite, potassium hydrogen sulfite, etc.) and disodium EDTA. Antioxidants include BHA and BHT. Other preservatives include formaldehyde (usually in solution), glutaraldehyde (kills insects), ethanol and methylchloroisothiazolinone. The benefits and safety of many artificial food additives (including preservatives) are the subject of debate among academics and regulators specializing in food science and toxicology.

Natural food preservation

Natural substances such as salt, sugar, vinegar, and diatomaceous earth are also used as traditional preservatives. Certain processes such as freezing, pickling, smoking and salting can also be used to preserve food. Another group of preservatives targets enzymes in fruits and vegetables that continue to metabolize after they are cut. For instance, citric and ascorbic acids from lemon or other citrus juice can inhibit the action of the enzyme phenolase which turns surfaces of cut apples and potatoes brown. Caution must be taken, however, since FDA standards do not currently require fruit and vegetable product labels to accurately reflect the type of preservative used in the products. Further, there is no current regulation requiring the inclusion of preservative chemical in labels at all; some potentially hazardous.

Health concerns

Some modern synthetic preservatives have become controversial because they have been shown to cause respiratory or other health problems. Some studies point to synthetic preservatives and artificial coloring agents aggravating ADD & ADHD symptoms in those affected. Older studies were inconclusive quite possibly due to inadequate clinical methods of measuring offending behavior. Parental reports were more accurate indicators of the presence of additives than clinical tests. Several major studies show academic performance increased and disciplinary problems decreased in large non-ADD student populations when artificial ingredients, including preservatives were eliminated from school food programs. Allergenic preservatives in food or medicine can cause anaphylactic shock in susceptible individuals, a condition which is often fatal within minutes without emergency treatment.

References

See also

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