- The Washington Times - Monday, July 18, 2005

Preservatives may maintain the condition of many tasty foods, but whether they preserve a person’s health is another matter, says Demetre Whitmore, a registered dietitian at the Washington Cancer Institute at the Washington Hospital Center in Northwest.

“Nowadays, we are able to truck food from California to Maryland, and when it gets to the supermarkets, we are still able to eat it,” Miss Whitmore says. “But it’s better to eat more things that are fresh, more fresh fruits and vegetables, where nothing has been added.”

Although modern food preservatives provide many benefits, experts still have questions about the full effects of the chemicals on the human body. Most doctors and nutritionists agree that eating fresh produce is healthier.

“I tell people to try to eat more whole foods so you don’t consume so many preservatives,” says Meg Martin, clinical nutrition manager at Inova Alexandria Hospital. “Even though preservatives have been shown to be safe, new information could show otherwise.”

Because preservatives have been needed for many centuries, the technology involving them tends to be tried and true, says George Pauli, associate director for science and policy in the office of food additive safety in the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in College Park. He holds a doctorate in physical chemistry.

Companies haven’t spent money on new preservatives in recent years because they already have sufficient ingredients, he says. Natamycin, which was approved by the FDA more than two decades ago, is one of the newest preservatives on the market. It inhibits mold and yeast growth and is commonly used in cheese.

In 1958, Congress passed the Food Additives Amendment to the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act of 1938, saying that anything used in food needs FDA approval.

As a result, the regulatory category “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS) was created. Substances were added to the list if scientific experts considered them safe under the conditions of intended use. Items still can be added to the list if they qualify.

“It was a way of stating that there are some things that are so well-known that there is a consensus that they are safe to use, and the FDA doesn’t have to review and approve them,” Mr. Pauli says. “Once in a long while, when information or use changes, where the safety is no longer generally recognized, the FDA might revisit it.”

In 1970, calcium cyclamate and other cyclamate salts formerly on the GRAS list were banned, Mr. Pauli says. They had been found to cause cancer in lab rats.

If a preservative has no adverse effects on lab animals during their lifetime after ingesting amounts of the substance 100 times greater than a human would ingest, it’s unlikely humans would react negatively to the product, Mr. Pauli says.

Companies petition the FDA with data, saying why the ingredient is safe. How the chemical is made, what impurities might result, how often the ingredient is used and how much a human would consume are taken into consideration before a substance is approved, Mr. Pauli says.

“The standard is responsible certainty that no harm will result from the use of the preservatives or additives,” Mr. Pauli says.

Scientific methods for assessing substances have progressed since the creation of the GRAS list almost five decades ago, says Dr. Lynn Goldman, professor of environmental health sciences at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore.

For instance, only in the past 15 years have experts realized that some chemicals affect endocrine levels in the body, she says.

Although substances on the GRAS list probably won’t produce acute side effects, many of them should be re-evaluated to determine their long-term influences, Dr. Goldman says.

In 1988, Congress required pesticides to be reassessed, even the older ones that seemed harmless, she says. Pesticide companies performed modern tests on the products for them to be “re-registered,” Dr. Goldman says.

According to the FDA, after the cyclamate incident, the organization undertook a review of the substances on the original GRAS list. Generally, this review did not involve new testing but was a massive project, searching all scientific literature published on the substances, a survey of the food industry on how much was being added to foods, and a contract with an outside scientific body that assembled food safety experts to review the information and report on their findings.

However, food additives and preservatives have not undergone as stringent a reconsideration process as pesticides, Dr. Goldman says.

“The direct amount of exposure from a food additive could be a lot higher than a pesticide,” Dr. Goldman says. “Food additives are not made to be toxic, but they are in the food at very high levels.”

Patients with gastrointestinal problems should avoid processed foods, says Dr. Robynne Chutkan, assistant professor of medicine at Georgetown University in Northwest.

“Those foods are chemicals,” Dr. Chutkan says. “They are not things that are designed to be in our bodies. They are designed to enhance the shelf life of food. They are not nutritious. They are designed to improve the quality, texture or taste of the food. People aren’t meant to eat nitrites or sulfites.”

Although there is no scientific evidence that preservatives cause illnesses such as Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis and irritable bowel syndrome, persons suffering from these disorders tend to tolerate natural foods better than “food from a box,” she says.

“The more processed food is, the further you get from its natural state,” Dr. Chutkan says. “We really don’t know the effects on the G.I. tract.”

Studies are under way to see if probiotics, or the antimicrobial compounds produced by probiotics, which are similar to those found in the human body, could serve as food preservatives, says Randy Worobo, associate professor of food microbiology at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. He holds a doctorate in food microbiology.

“It would be a natural preservative because it’s replicating what’s happening in the stomach,” Mr. Worobo says. “We’ve found compounds active against bacterial pathogens like listeria and salmonella, as well as a variety of spoilage molds.”

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