Fast food nation

Beware of preservatives in ready-to-eat food

One major advantage of grab-and-go bread and bakery products available in convenience stores is that they stand for speed and convenience. Pre-packaged bakery products are among the most popular choices for city people, not just because they are tasty but also easy to consume. Just grab them from the shelves and your stomach is instantly satisfied.

But at the same time, many of these pre-packaged bread and buns also contain a health risk.

The Foundation for Consumers has recently revealed test results on the amount of preservatives used in the manufacturing process of pre-packaged bakery products. The examination was carried out by Chalard Sue (Smart Buyers) magazine in collaboration with the Consumer Empowerment Project under the Thai Health Promotion Foundation.

According to Patchara Klaewkla, food alert system coordinator from the Foundation for Consumers, the recent test followed up a similar laboratory analysis conducted last year by the Department of Medical Sciences, the Ministry of Public Health, which examined approximately 700 to 800 samples of pre-packaged bread and bakery from convenience stores and supermarkets nationwide.

The result of the 2012 test was alarming. More than 300 samples were found to contain an excessive amount of preservatives, which account for almost 50% of the collected samples. The Foundation for Consumers' follow-up test aimed, consequently, at checking whether there has been any improvement on the manufacturers' side.

Fourteen samples of sandwich bread and pre-packaged bakery products were collected from convenient stores and supermarkets. Some of the collected samples mentioned clearly on the products' labels that they contained preservatives.

The samples were then sent for laboratory analysis at the Regional Medical Sciences Centre 7 in Ubon Ratchathani province. The test screened for three types of preservatives _ sorbic acid, benzoic acid and propionic acid _ which are widely used for food preservation. Propionic acid is especially used in the bakery industry given it has the ability to kill mould but does not interrupt the function of yeast.

"We found that 80% of the collected samples were found to contain preservatives," revealed Patchara. "But this was not surprising because the majority of the samples mentioned on their labels clearly that they used preservatives in the production process."

However, what needs to be underlined are five samples which were found with excessive amount of preservatives.

Of these five, one did not mention anything about preservative usage. And one clearly stated that it did not contain preservatives _ an unlawful act of false labelling punishable by up to 10 years imprisonment and a fine of up to 100,000 baht.

One piece of good news for consumers is that top-brand products were not found to contain high levels of preservatives. But Patchara noted that these brands usually use more than one type of preservative in the manufacturing process.

And like it or not, eating too many pre-packaged bakery products can be detrimental to your health, warned chief of Chalard Sue's product safety test centre Thassanee Nan-udorn.

"Human beings can actually get rid of preservative intake if the daily consumption does not exceed the body's acceptable amount," explained Thassanee.

"But too much preservative intake can cause nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea as the chemicals disturb the function of bacteria in the intestines."

"In the long run, preservatives can accumulate inside the body and damage organs in the waste management system, including kidney and liver," noted Thassanee, adding that the maximum amount of preservatives allowed in the manufacturing process of bakery products is 1,000mg per 1kg of food.

Consumers wanting to stay away from preservative agents should keep their eyes wide open.

Smell, Patchara suggested, is a good indicator to check whether the bread or bakery products contain too much preservative. If the bread or bakery product smells rancid once the package is opened, they are likely to contain an excessive amount of preservatives.

And these days when time and speed has become a factor when it comes to food choice, Patchara admitted that many times consumers cannot help counting on grab-and-go products in their daily life. But choosing products wisely and more carefully can be a good way out of the food threat.

"Freshly baked bread and bakery products are a better choice, which can keep yourself away from too much preservative," commented Patchara. "From our tested samples, no freshly baked products were found with preservatives. This is, of course, not a 100% guarantee but at least we can say freshly baked ones are likely to be safer for health than the pre-packaged." Consumers should eat a wide variety of food, so that they receive adequate nutrients from several food options, and they need to lower the risk of taking in too many toxic substances from the same food source every day.

"Reading the product label is very important and is the first defence against preservatives," said Patchara. "If the label says it contains preservative agents, then it means you buy it at your own risk. Bear in mind that bread and bakery products are not the only thing that contain preservatives. Processed food such as meatballs and sausages also contain preservative agents. So whenever you walk into convenience stores or supermarkets with a plan in mind to buy such food, you must understand that you buy yourself a health risk."

About the author

Writer: Arusa Pisuthipan
Position: Muse Editor