I’m sure you’ve heard of parabens. They are broad-spectrum preservatives used in many mainstream cosmetics to keep beasties such as bacteria, mould and yeast out of your beauty products. There has been a LOT of controversy over them in the last decade since a study linked them to breast cancer tumours.
Many brands now proudly advertise that their products are ‘paraben-free’ (despite this no longer being allowed under the new EU Cosmetics Regulations). However, one issue which isn’t talked about much is the fact that parabens are also used as preservatives in foods. Could you be eating parabens?
What is a paraben?
Parabens are esters of para-hydroxybenzoic acid, which is where their name comes from. Most commonly used parabens include methylparaben, ethylparaben, propylparaben, butylparaben and heptylparaben, but this isn’t an exhaustive list. All the parabens in commercial use are made synthetically although they are generally nature-identical (i.e. they are exactly the same as the ones found in nature).
What is the controversy?
In 2004, researchers found parabens in breast cancer tumours. Although there isn’t a proven link between parabens and breast cancer, the research certainly pointed the finger in that direction. It was then picked up the mainstream media who vilified parabens and put most consumers off for life, leading hundreds if not thousands of skincare companies to phase out parabens as preservatives altogether.
These studies have since been brought into question and various regulatory bodies and cancer charities have come out with firm statements to say that parabens do not cause cancer (see this statement by Cancer Research UK o r this statement by the American Cancer Society).
There is also a concern regarding parabens’ oestrogen-mimicking ability. Following a Danish ban on the use of propyl- and butyl parabens in products for children under the age of three, the European Commission’s Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety concluded this ban might have some merit in the case of children below the age of 6 months. They could not exclude a risk from certain parabens present in leave-on cosmetic products designed for application on the nappy area given a baby’s immature metabolism and risk of damaged skin (e.g. nappy rash). They went on to say that safety concerns could legitimately be raised. (note that this doesn’t stop baby wipes being sold which contain parabens!)
For a paraben to make it all the way into your body via your personal care products is a long and difficult route. This doesn’t mean parabens don’t absorb into your body, but it’s not the most direct route to get there. If you wanted to get parabens into your body quicker, you’d eat them.
E is for…
Just like cosmetics, foods also need preservation to avoid bacteria, moulds and yeasts from growing in your meals and drinks. We’ve become so accustomed to food lasting for a long time in the fridge or on the shelf that we often don’t stop to think how this is achieved. The food industry often employs ancient techniques such as salting, pickling, smoking or freezing, but sometimes they use antimicrobial chemical agents instead.
Many of these chemicals are synthetically derived and sometimes (not always) mimic their natural counterparts. Examples of chemicals used to preserve food include calcium propionate, sodium nitrate, sodium nitrite, sulphites, disodium EDTA, formaldehyde (usually in solution), glutaraldehyde (kills insects), ethanol, and methylchloroisothiazolinone. Yum.
For those of you who regularly read up on your cosmetics labels, you may recognise some of these names as they are also sometimes used to preserve your personal care products.
Parabens are another example of a food preservative, although they’re not called parabens when used in food – they’re given E-numbers instead. The most commonly-used parabens in food are methylparaben (food additive E218) and ethylparaben (E214) with the European Food Safety Authority setting an Acceptable Daily Intake of 0-10mg per kilogram of body weight per day for methyl- and ethylparaben. Other parabens in foods include Propylparaben (E216), Heptylparaben (E209) and Butylparaben.
Typical products which contain parabens for preservation include beer, sauces, desserts, soft drinks, processed fish, jams, pickles, frozen dairy products, processed vegetables and flavouring syrups.
Parabens have been used as food preservatives for many decades and this is presumably one of the reasons that little to no information is available about their use in certain foods and our dietary exposure. Historically, food manufacturers and food safety agencies have generally assumed that these chemicals exhibit low toxicity and that we shouldn’t worry about them.
A team of researchers recently decided to examine the use of parabens in food in more detail. Scientists at the New York State Department of Health and the Department of Environmental Health Sciences, along with the University of New York at Albany published a study earlier this year in which they revealed that parabens were found in 90% of the foodstuffs they tested from local markets in the Albany area in New York.
These scientists tested over 250 samples of food from various shops and markets around Albany. According to GreenMedInfo.com, they collected juices, soft drinks, alcoholic beverages, infant formula, dairy products such as milk, yoghurt, cheese and ice cream, oils, fats, bread, flours, rice, pasta, corn, fruits, baked goods, meats, shellfish and seafood and many others for testing. They then analysed them for their paraben content in the lab, focusing specifically on butyl parabens, benzyl paraben, propyl parabens, methyl parabens, and ethyl parabens.
Apparently pancake syrup contained the highest levels of methylparabens out of all the foods measured. Others foods that contained high levels included muffins, iced tea, pudding and turkey roast. Highest levels of propyl parabens were found in turkey breasts, yoghurt, turkey roast and apple pie. The highest levels of ethyl parabens were found in red wine. The researchers found parabens in 98% of grain foods, 91% of fish and shellfish, 87% of dairy products, and 85% of fruit products.
The researchers then looked at the exposure levels of various age groups and found that infants were taking in the highest level of parabens on a daily basis per kilogram of body weight. They determined that infants were likely to consume 940 nanograms of parabens per kilo of body weight per day, toddlers 879, children 470, teenagers 273 and adults 307 (Liao et al., 2013).
At this point, it would be easy for us to lean back smugly and say “well, that’s the States, I’m sure OUR food isn’t riddled with parabens”. In our global economy with globalised food production, that would be a naive attitude to take. Chances are that the foods you eat on a regular basis contain parabens as preservatives.
What I’m trying to say here is that many consumers put a lot of effort into avoiding parabens in their skincare at all cost… only to be ingesting seemingly large quantities in their food and drink.
Naturally occurring parabens
Certain parabens are found in numerous plants around the world. This finding makes perfect sense of course, as plants have evolved anti-microbial agents in order to protect them from fungal or microbial attack.
Plants which are particularly well-known for their naturally occurring parabens include blueberries, mango, barley, strawberries, black currants, peaches, carrots, onions, cocoa beans, vanilla, to name but a few well-known foodstuffs.
In fact, according to some research, (see Anthony Dweck’s Paraben Compendium) 4-hydroxybenzoic acid (which forms the basis of parabens) is the most widely distributed aromatic organic acid in the vegetable kingdom. In other words, they’re everywhere.
I’m sure your head is spinning after reading all that. Everything we’ve been taught to believe about parabens might actually be a load of hype. Or is it?
Parabens have the ability to slightly mimic oestrogen, much like other plants. Putting the whole argument about parabens and cancer to one side for a minute, there is a valid concern that the oestrogen-mimicking aspect of parabens may be increasing early onset of puberty in girls.
Nay-sayers may immediately jump to the defence of parabens by saying that they are found everywhere in nature and that we regularly eat them in our blueberry and vanilla pancakes (smothered in methylparaben syrup).
However, it’s important to remember that this glut of synthetic food preservatives didn’t exist until a hundred years ago – parabens have only been used as preservatives since the 1920s. Until that point, people were generally still making their own foods with fresh unprocessed ingredients. And as we know, this habit continued for many years until recent decades when we have come to rely more and more on processed foods.
Paired with the recent findings by Liao et al. (2013) which showed that parabens were found in 90% of food and drink tested, it strikes me that an ingredient which may be relatively innocuous by itself in small quantities is now potentially being used as a preservative in virtually all processed foods. After all, these preservatives are low cost and it is undoubtedly more commercially viable to use parabens than to use honey, sugar, smoke, or salt to preserve food (to name but a few examples), or to change people’s eating habits in line with seasonality.
Our bodies may, therefore, be taking in many more parabens than ever before, which may lead to our hormones getting confused. Research is ongoing to look into this in more detail. I don’t have all the answers.
In my opinion, the next step for food manufacturers should be to think about whether they are over-using certain preservatives. Food prices are often artificially kept low, but perhaps it’s time that we start to demand good quality ingredients, eat fresh seasonal foods and stop expecting foods AND skincare to stay on the shelf without spoilage for years on end.
Food manufacturers managed for thousands of years before synthetic parabens showed up on the scene to preserve their jams and beer. Before that, people ate products that were preserved using more natural techniques or they ate fresh, seasonal foods and didn’t need to keep food in the cupboard for many months before it was eaten.