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Paraben – The Health Implications of This Widely Used Food Preservative

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October 4, 2016

Part of being a smart consumer involves reading product labels to ensure its safety. Food labels in particular are very important since food products are ingested and directly enter the body and any harmful substances it may contain can have a great impact on one’s health. Food labels contain necessary information about a product including the different ingredients used and food preservatives if any.

Importance of Food Preservatives:

Food preservatives are commonly used to prevent spoilage, increase shelf life, and sustain the appearance of a product. Food products commonly need preservatives in one form or another to prevent contamination with harmful microorganisms such as bacteria and mold. Both natural and chemical preservatives may be used to prevent product spoilage. Examples of natural food preservatives that prevent contamination include salt and vinegar while chemical preservatives include nitrites, benzoates, sorbates, and sulfites.

Antioxidants are also used in food preservation, specifically in maintaining the physical appearance of the product. Examples of natural antioxidants are citric acid and ascorbic acid while chemical ones include butylated hydroxytoluene or BHT and butylated hydroxyanisole or BHA. Food preservatives are also used to extend the shelf life of a product by slowing down the process of decay. Chemical preservatives have always been a cause of health concern and one of the chemicals commonly used in food preservation but is also the focus of much controversy regarding safety is paraben.

What is paraben?

Paraben is a synthetic preservative commonly seen in cosmetic ingredients. Paraben is not only widely used in the cosmetic industry but in the food industry as well for its value in product preservation. There are different types of parabens but the most commonly used types in preservation are propyl paraben, ethyl paraben, and methyl paraben.

Parabens are well known for their bactericidal properties. It can also be used to prevent fungal growth in products. Although parabens are most commonly used for skin care products, it can also be found in pharmaceutical products and used as a food preservative.

Harmful Effects of Paraben:

Studies show that parabens may actually have a negative effect on the body. Since it is widely used in different products, we usually absorb significant amounts from the skin through application of cosmetic products with paraben and from the food we eat that contain this synthetic chemical.

One of the major concerns with regard to paraben is the possibility of developing cancer, specifically breast cancer. Paraben actually mimics the functions of estrogen in the body and long-term exposure to this chemical can increase one’s risk for developing cancer of the breast. In a study about breast cancer led by Dr. Philippa Darbre, 99% of the breast tissue samples had at least one type of paraben and 60% of the samples had at least 5 different parabens, leading researchers to speculate regarding the direct role of paraben in breast cancer. Aside from increasing one’s risk for developing breast cancer, parabens can also have negative effects on the normal hormonal and reproductive function in males.

The Call for Paraben-Free Products:

Although the role of parabens in certain health conditions and its long term effects are still under study, a lot of cosmetic and food manufacturers have already eliminated this synthetic chemical form their ingredient list. Different products are now advertised as paraben-free as more people become aware of the possible health implications of parabens. Parabens may be or may not be a carcinogenic or mutagenic but until its safety has truly been established, most people deem it best to avoid products with paraben as one of its ingredients.

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