This post is brought to you by ConAgra Foods & The Motherhood. Please note that, as always, any personal opinions reflected in this post are my own.
Some people today are quite vigilant about what is in their food. When I was a young married woman in the late 80s just starting to learn about food and cooking, people didn’t pay attention to food ingredients in the way that some do today. Truthfully, nowadays I hear discussions on what’s in food and I sometimes think “well I never heard of that before and people have been eating that since I was young and we’re fine”.
I do get a bit curious about certain topics, particularly when they are topics they just weren’t discussed years ago. And I like to learn things. I thought it made sense to try and learn a bit more about a topic I see big discussions every now and again. The subject of one of those discussions is antioxidants and preservatives. Until last week I had little knowledge of either. I knew preservatives were, well, preservatives – something that helped preserve something else. Antioxidants, well I knew the meaning of the word – against oxidation – but I didn’t know any details on what that was all about when it pertained to food.
Recently, ConAgra Foods held a virtual briefing sharing information about antioxidants and food preservation. I welcomed the opportunity to learn a bit more about the topic, as I feel I can’t even really read a discussion about it properly if I don’t have any of the facts needed to form an opinion. Presenters included Lanie Friedman, Director, Communications & External Relations at ConAgra Foods; Kelly Magurany, M.Sc., DABT, Principal Research Scientists- Toxicology – Food Protection and Regulatory Affairs at ConAgra Foods; and Kristi Reimers, RD, PhD, Nutrition, Director of Nutrition in Research & Innovations at ConAgra Foods. Here are the top take-aways I got from the presentation.
Why should we preserve our food?
There are five main reasons we should preserve our food:
- Natural color preservation
- Food waste reduction
How can we preserve our food?
The most common ways to preserve food are through methods like canning and freezing. Even putting foods in the fridge helps preserve them. Another way to preserve foods is by adding ingredients to every day packaged foods.
What is an antioxidant?
Antioxidants help prevent oxygen from damaging other molecules. Antioxidants function in the body to help protect cells, and they function in foods to protect oils from damage that leads to rancidity. I feel it is important to note that while antioxidants are preservatives, not all preservatives are antioxidants.
Antioxidants are just one type of preservative. Antioxidants function specifically to prevent the oxidation of fats & oils and other compounds in food. Oxidation is the process by which components in the air break-down fats and oils in foods into those with off-flavors and odors, often referred to as rancidity. Other types of food preservatives (such as calcium sorbate and sodium benzoate) function to prevent food spoilage from things like molds, fungus, bacteria and yeast.
Where do you find antioxidants?
We have many antioxidants that are naturally produced in our body every day, such as after exercise; these antioxidants help fend off environmental toxins and stress on the body. Our bodies carefully control the amount of antioxidants in our cells; we can get very sick if the normal level of antioxidants in our body becomes too low. Some of our most important vitamins, such as vitamin E and vitamin C, are used in our body as antioxidants. Some of the ways antioxidants benefit our bodies include slowing of the aging process, boosting the body’s natural defense system, and helping to combat heart disease, cancer and other diseases.
There are also antioxidants in food. Like the vitamins in your body, certain foods contain natural antioxidants, such as polyphenols; some foods may also contain man made antioxidants. Why are there antioxidants in food? When you open a box of food, the exposure to air can cause certain ingredients that are common in our food, like fats and oils, to spoil; the unpleasant odors and flavors that follow are sometimes called “rancidity”. Some of the ways that antioxidants benefit food are that they help preserve food’s flavors and natural colors, and that they help prevent food from becoming rancid (spoiling), and therefore wasted.
In foods like carrots and kale, natural antioxidants help preserve the color and freshness. Examples of packaged foods that use antioxidants as preservatives include things like microwaved popcorn, cookies, and cereal products. Any food product that contains a fat or oil will typically have an antioxidant added either to the starting batter oil or to the end food product.
Natural v. Man Made Antioxidants – What Are Their Differences And Why Use One Over The Other?
Some of the antioxidants naturally found in food include:
- Alpha-tocopherol (aka Vitamin E) – Found in nuts, seeds and leafy green vegetables – helps to protect fats and oils in food from spoiling
- Ascorbic Acid (aka Vitamin C) – Found in citrus fruits, sometimes also called sodium ascorbate –saves breads and packaged meat from spoiling
- Citric Acid – Found naturally in citrus fruits – used to preserve sliced fruit
Some of the man made antioxidants commonly in food include:
- BHT: A tasteless, colorless man made antioxidant is used to help maintain freshness in grain-based foods like crackers and cookies
- TBHQ: A tasteless, colorless man made antioxidant used commonly to keep vegetable oils and other packaged foods fresh
One type of antioxidant is used over another based on performance. Man made antioxidants like BHT and TBHQ, which are tasteless, colorless and odorless at low levels, have been used for over 60 years. They are used because sometimes natural antioxidants throw off flavors of foods we know and love, or because a certain antioxidant might perform best with a certain food. Food makers, like ConAgra Foods, choose certain preservative ingredients based on what they know will deliver the best flavor, while keeping your foods safe and fresh. For example TBHQ is often used in fryer oils as it is more stable at higher temperatures than BHT, thus preserving these foods more effectively. Natural and man made antioxidants are sometimes used together.
Whether man-made or natural, antioxidants are used to preserve the flavor, color, and improve the shelf-life of foods. Both are evaluated for their safe use in food by scientific experts trained to understand the impact on human health. (In fact, some large epidemiology studies found that antioxidants have some anti-carcinogenic properties.) Both function to reduce rancidity in food by preventing the breakdown of fats and oils (and other compounds). Both must be used at low levels in accordance with regulatory guidelines and safety thresholds. Both must be “food grade” so as not to introduce hazardous by-products or impurities in foods. Both are used to provide food with a high quality and flavor, so that consumers like you and I may enjoy the foods that we love.
Check out this video from mental_floss that helps explain 6 facts about antioxidants and preservatives!
In case you’d like to read more, here is a list of the references used in the presentation.
- US FDA Food Ingredients, Colors, and Additives overview http://www.fda.gov/Food/IngredientsPackagingLabeling/FoodAdditivesIngredients/ucm094211.htm#types
- Epidemiology study BHA/BHT: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10942321
- www.researchgate.net/…Antioxidants_Regulatory_Status/…/ 0912f51226729b259b000000.pdf
- JECFA- TBHQ : http://www.fao.org/ag/agn/jecfa-additives/specs/Monograph1/Additive-459.pdf
- EFSA TBHQ opinion 2004: http://www.efsa.europa.eu/en/efsajournal/doc/84.pdf
- EFSA BHT opinion 2012: http://www.efsa.europa.eu/fr/search/doc/2588.pdf