Since I was a small kid, I had the habit of going over the chocolate wrapping before opening and enjoying it. Although I would not understand the majority of the things, it always intrigued me. I think the hidden food technologist in me always wanted to know how the products were made but those ingredients were hard to decipher just like Doctor’s prescription. Fast forward to the day I started my degree in Food Science, slowly things started to unravel and finally all those numbers and chemicals made sense. But equally, I have come to learn that only a handful of these are actually beneficial to us and the rest are sure to cause harm to our well-being. Most of these uncommon ingredients are preservative- to increase the shelf life, colouring- to retain colour, flavouring- to enhance the flavour or an additive- to improve the processing of the product.
Seasonal products are always in great demand during the off season. The most common way to preserve any product is the addition of preservatives to prolong its shelf life and make it available all year around. Some of these preservatives are natural but others are mainly artificial/synthetic. Addition of either of food preservatives helps stop food products from deteriorating too quickly from bacterial and fungal growth. They also prevent the oxidation of food components which otherwise results in further spoilage. Preservatives are famous in the food industry not only because they extend shelf life but also because they reduce food cost. I know that now, first hand!
But pickling is one of the natural forms of food preservation. The science behind it is simple and logical. They make use of higher concentration of salt/ sugar to ensure the killing of pathogenic microorganisms. And for Indian pickles to give their flavour depth and a new dimension, a variety of spices and oils are utilized concurrently. Additionally, some of these spices like turmeric powder have antibacterial qualities. The oil used helps the pickle last longer. The two most common oils used in pickling, mustard and sesame, both have antimicrobial qualities. All these ingredients fall under the natural preservatives and hence have no side-effects on the body. So, imagine my surprise when I realized that the store bought pickles have preservatives in them!
The conventional pickling requires perfect summer weather, quality ingredients and fermentation time. But when manufacturing is on a large scale the objective is to produce pickles that are low cost, with quick turnaround time and made available throughout the year. So the best way to achieve these is by using artificial / synthetic preservatives. Below are three most commonly used artificial preservatives in the pickles.
Sodium Benzoate– Commonly declared as Class II Preservative (INS 211) on the label of the packaged pickle bottle. It is one of the famous preservatives used in pickles and soft drinks. Sodium benzoate is a most readily available and cheapest preservative which is both antibacterial and antifungal in nature. It is also regarded as GRAS (generally regarded as safe) and recommended amounts by FDA is less than or equal to 5 mg/kg of body weight per day [Łucja Justyna Walczak and Mariola, 2022]. Most of the vegetables or fruits from which the pickles are made, are rich in source of Vitamin C i.e Ascorbic Acid. Hence, a chemical reaction happens between the added Sodium Benzoate and Vitamin C resulting in the product called Benzene which is believed to be highly carcinogenic [Łucja Justyna Walczak and Mariola, 2022]. So a strong word of caution on consuming products which have both Sodium Benzoate and Vitamin C.
Acetic Acid– This is one of the common by-products of any pickle fermentation. But in the traditional pickling process it takes nearly 2 weeks or more to form Acetic acid, which makes the pickle tangy. Acetic acid [Acidity Regulator (INS 260)] is added in mass manufacturing to quickly achieve the tartness of age-old pickle and also to maintain the pH of pickle in the range of 4-4.5. But, acetic acid softens the fruits and vegetables which is commonly seen in the packaged bottles unlike the ones made at home. Although the concentration of Acetic acid used in pickles is considerably less, however, it is reported that intake of large amounts of acetic acid might lead to low potassium levels in blood and decreased bone density [Karl Lhotta., et.al, 1998]
Citric Acid– In the food industry, citric acid is referred to as Acidity Regulator (INS 330). Although, naturally occurring citric acid in citrus fruits like lime, lemon, orange does not cause any side effects. The same cannot be assured for the synthetically manufactured citric acid (MCA) with Aspergillus Niger. There have been reports of allergic reactions, inflammations and problems with respiration when artificial citric acid has been consumed. Although, the studies have been recommended to further investigate these claims [Illiana and Bryan., 2018]. It’s best to read the labels before consuming products having this preservative/acidity regulator.
Packaged and processed food have become an integral part of our life. We don’t seem to find a way out of this dependency. So because of this increase in consumption of shelved products it has also increased our intake of all the additives and preservatives in our day to day life. I believe the best way to re-gain control is to create self-awareness by reading the labels, chemical additives and their permitted intake levels. As much as possible, opting for natural preservatives where necessary would be recommended over artificial preservatives. But it would be best if we can choose natural, healthy, organic, preservative-free and homemade products to keep the body in good condition for the long run.