Many of you have probably noticed the signs in Usdan and Pi Café recently reminding us about the carbon footprint of the foods that we commonly eat. I want to draw attention to another food issue: preservatives. Most people wouldn’t choose to walk into a laboratory, pick up a man-made substance, and eat it, and yet we essentially do just that every day. When I was in France this summer, I was amazed at how fresh everything tasted. More importantly, I just felt healthier. I had more energy, and I felt clean. Many of the chemicals that are practically inescapable here in America are illegal in other countries. Why do we allow this practice to continue to reap such harm on our bodies?
A food preservative is any substance added to a product to keep it from spoiling or to help preserve its color and appearance. There are some natural preservatives, like sugar, salt, and vinegar, which have been used for hundreds of years. However, more recently, manufactured preservatives such as nitrite and sulfite derivatives have become increasingly common. These are often triggers for allergies in many individuals, resulting in hives and even asthma attacks, and can also cause even worse health effects.
According to an article in The New Zealand Journal of Medicine published in 2006, regular ingestion of nitrite and nitrate preservatives is a leading factor in the development of methemoglobinemia, a condition that reduces the ability of blood to carry oxygen. These preservatives are often used in meat products to preserve their pinkish color. Although there have not been many definitive studies yet, such compounds are also suspected to contribute to the risk of some cancers.
There are definitely some benefits to using preservatives, the most important of which is the fact that they keep harmful bacteria at bay. However, we have done so without using synthetic additives for decades. The truth is that it comes down to money; the longer food is on the shelf, the more money a company can make selling that food, and the fewer losses it suffers.
I am certainly no expert on economics, but I believe that it would be worthwhile to start looking toward more natural ways of manufacturing food products. Some additives, such as artificial coloring, are simply not necessary. Yes, they may make our food look more appealing, but I’m sure we could adapt to the blander appearances. A more pressing issue in food production is accessibility. Unfortunately, synthetic foods are much cheaper, and therefore many people are left to buy only low-quality food. Although we often discuss the topics of obesity among the American population, this is a large factor that often goes under the radar and must be addressed.
It seems like common sense: if we wouldn’t eat it in nature, it probably isn’t great for our health. This applies in particular to nitrites, sulfites, and other artificial food additives. Although fast food corporations are definitely guilty of using such preservatives, this is an issue that touches almost all of the food that is made available to us. You can try, whenever possible, to buy organic foods from companies that apply safer food practices, such as the use of hormone-free and pesticide-free animals and plants.
If a substance is found to have an incredibly harmful effect on our health, we should not allow food producers to use that substance at all. It is alarming that most of the food ingested here in the United States contains substances that can possibly contribute to cancer risk; when dealing with something as serious as our well-being, isn’t it better to err on the side of safety? We must support farmers, and perhaps begin to grow our own food whenever we can. Most of all, we must discuss how to make better-quality food accessible to all.