Preservatives have been used for centuries by us humans to increase the shelf life of various kinds of foods and to keep their taste, nutritional value and color intact. These substances, which can be either natural or artificial are used widely in processed and packaged foods to make the contents last longer. In this busy and fast paced world, people don’t have time for cooking and most of the time they resort to buying packaged foods. The use of preservatives have therefore increased many fold when compared to olden times.
Synthetic or artificial preservatives are easily available and they are inexpensive as well. But the chemical constitution of these substances are likely to cause various health concerns in people. Nitrates that are used to preserve meat have been linked to cancer while sulfites and food coloring have been found to contribute to depression, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and even Alzheimer’s disease. However, the good news is that there are plenty of natural, healthy and non-cancerous foods that have immense potential to be used as food preservatives. Let’s have at some of these natural food preservatives:
Salt is one of the best natural food preservatives that has been used since ancient times. Sodium chloride or table salt is used in the preservation of fish and meats. What salt typically does is that it draws the water out from the meat via a process called osmosis and makes it too dry to support the growth of bacteria or harmful mold that cause decay of the food.
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Just like salt, sugar also acts as a natural food preservative by causing the bacteria to lose water through the process of osmosis. Without water, it is impossible for the bacteria to live, let alone grow and divide. The Food and Agriculture Organization, suggests that fructose and sucrose are very effective for preserving food while glucose is not. Honey, Splenda, agave nectar and other such sugar substitutes are also effective sweeteners, but foods preserved using real sugar are found to last much longer.
Although sugar is capable of inhibiting the growth of many species of bacteria, it has no effect on the anaerobic bacterium, Clostridium botulinum, which is responsible for causing the deadly disease known as botulism. To lower the risk of the growth of Clostridium botulinum in preserved foods, make sure to follow the packing, sealing and processing instructions in each recipe. Many strains belonging to the Zygosaccharomyces yeast family are also found to flourish in sugary preserves.
- Lemon Juice
Lemon juice is rich in vitamin C, also known as ascorbic acid, which is a strong antioxidant that prevents decaying and rotting. Just like salt, lemon juice also draws out water content, making it impossible for the bacteria to thrive. It also lowers the pH of the preserved foods, creating an acidic environment that does not support the growth of bacteria. Citric acid is another acid found in lemons, which is used for preserving the color, taste and flavor of foods and beverages.
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Nutrient rich honey is another alternative to unhealthy chemical preservatives. It has been used as a natural food preservative since ancient times. The high concentration of sugar in honey draws out water from the cells of microorganisms like yeast or bacteria that cause damage to the food. This process, known as osmosis, destroys these cells, eventually drying them up. Another reason for the preservative effect of honey is the presence of Phytoncides, antibiotic substances that inhibit the growth of microorganisms and destroy them, thus preventing the process of decomposition.
Oil is a natural food preservative as it helps prevent microorganisms from coming into contact with the food and keeps the food fresh. Oil acts as a barrier for moisture and stops the water content from entering into the food. Moreover, the natural antioxidant property of the oil inhibits the process of oxidation. When oil is used for preserving food, it forms a layer on the surface of the food, preventing oxidation of food as well as contamination by microorganisms. Oil is often added to pickles as it helps increase the shelf life of the pickle.
Garlic does more than impart an aroma and flavor to food, it also improves your health and many ways. It is also used as a natural food preservative. The antibacterial properties of garlic helps in destroying bacteria, including E.coli and salmonella. By getting rid of the harmful bacteria, garlic prevents food from being spoiled. An added bonus is that garlic also provides great flavor and taste to the preserved food.
Most pickles use vinegar as a flavoring agent as well as a natural food preservative. It is not possible for most harmful bacteria to exist in an acidic environment. Vinegar contains acetic acid and so when used a preservative, the acidic environment created by vinegar inhibits the enzyme activity of the microorganisms. Vinegar is great for preserving foods, such as fruits, vegetables, fish and meat products.
- Rosemary Oil Extract
Many spices and herbs such as cloves, cinnamon, cardamom, oregano, sage and rosemary have been used for thousands of years as natural food preservatives in countries like India and China. These ingredients contains high levels of phenolic compounds that have powerful anti-oxidant properties. They help keep the food from going bad by preventing the growth of microorganisms such as bacteria and fungus.
Rosemary oil extract have been used a lot these days as a natural preservative because it is highly effective and also provides a great flavor to the preserved food. The effectiveness of natural rosemary extract makes it an alternative to synthetic preservatives for delaying the oxidative rancidity and for stabilizing color of vegetable oils, animal fats, and high fat foods. The main active constituents of rosemary extracts are carnosol, carnosic acid and rosmarinic acid, all of which are highly powerful free radical scavengers. By delaying oxidation, rosemary oil extract extends the shelf life of foods.
Cloves are one of the most valuable spices that has been used as a natural food preservative for hundreds of years. According to a study conducted by researchers at the Miguel Hernández University, cloves are very effective as natural antioxidants and has the potential to increase the shelf-life of meat and other kinds of food. Cloves are rich in phenolic compounds that have antioxidant properties. They also help reduce lipid oxidation, which is one of the main causes of the deterioration of food. The antimicrobial activities of clove have been found to effective against several strains of bacteria and fungi.
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Oxidation processes in food can lead to the deterioration of its color, taste and texture. According to a study conducted by the University of Kentucky and Mississippi State University, the oxidation of the fat content of meat was significantly reduced by the addition of oregano oil. Oregano has antibacterial and antioxidant effects, which makes it an effective food preservative. Oregano essential oil contains aromatic substances carvacrol, thymol, limonene, and caryophyllene. Some of these substances possess antibacterial properties and can help prevent the growth of bacteria, fungi and mold.
Sage, with its health promoting and medicinal properties is also used as a natural food preservative. Ancient Greeks and Romans used it as a preservative for meat to help prevent spoilage long before refrigeration was available. The herb contains flavonoids, phenolic acids, and certain enzymes that gives it the ability to stabilize oxygen-related metabolism and prevent oxidation damage of cells. Because of the ability of sage to prevent oxidation of oils, it is used as a natural antioxidant additive to cooking oils in order to prevent rancidity and also to extend shelf life.
Another herb that has amazing antioxidant properties and can be used as a natural food preservative is thyme. It is most effective when used in combination with other natural preservatives. Studies indicate that the herb has antimicrobial properties and is effective against various forms of bacteria including Salmonella, Escherichia, Enterococcus, and Pseudomonas species. Thyme oil can be used as a preservative to prevent spoilage as well as to destroy several microorganisms that can contribute to health problems.
The antimicrobial properties of cinnamon are so effective that recent research on the spice indicates that it can be used as an alternative to artificial food preservatives. Cinnamon essential oil has been found to be capable of inhibiting the growth of the foodborne bacteria Bacillus cereus. Studies also suggest that the essential oil of cinnamon can inhibit the growth of microorganisms by as much as 60 percentage. The spice not only acts as a preservative but also helps improve the flavor of the preserved food.
Food preservatives have become a necessary ingredient in foods today. The main concern most people have about food preservatives is the artificial ingredients and chemicals used in it, which may cause dangerous side effects. Natural food preservatives, on the other hand are safer because they are obtained from nature. This is the reason why more and more people are opting for safer and natural food preservatives that are as effective as their artificial counterparts.