Two developments which arguably marked the start of modern human civilisation were food cultivation and food storage. It was at this stage that humankind progressed from a hunter-gatherer way of life to one which featured a less nomadic, more ordered regime of planting and growing, and of storing excess food in times of plenty.
Countries around the Mediterranean and in the Middle East began using the sun and the wind to dry food at least 14,000 years ago. Later, other food preservation methods were discovered and utilised by our ancestors, including fermenting, pickling and smoking. The invention of canning in the 18th century and refrigeration in the 20th meant food preservation took further huge steps forward.
All of these methods of preservation provided a means to prolong the life of food that we wished to store for use in leaner times, when the growing season was over.
More recently, however, the processed food industry has come to rely upon a range of preservatives in the form of chemical additives. In many cases, these chemicals are not so much used to keep food edible as to maintain its cosmetic appearance.
Here in the UK there are currently 55 chemical preservatives approved for use by food manufacturers. These are identifiable on food labelling by their individual “E” numbers. Whilst some of these approved preservatives are naturally derived, such as ascorbic acid (E300) a form of vitamin C, others have had a more artificial genesis.
Take hexamethylene tetramine, for example, which is used to preserve some foods against fungi. It is made, rather unappetisingly, by reacting ammonia with formaldehyde. It is also, incidentally banned from food use in a number of other countries, including the USA, Australia, New Zealand, Russia and Indonesia. E239 is the number to look out for if you would prefer to avoid this particular preservative.
Potassium Nitrite (E249) and Sodium Nitrite (E250) are also approved as preservatives for food use, mainly for meat products. However, they are primarily used to enhance the cosmetic appearance of those products, for example to give the meat in pork pies and sausages a pink colour. Potassium Nitrite is potentially carcinogenic, and for that reason it is banned from use in baby food, whereas Sodium Nitrite has been linked to headaches, dizziness, and in extreme cases vomiting and diaorrhea.
The UK food industry is also permitted to use eight different sulphites (E221 to E228 inclusive). These are often used to preserve colour in soft drinks, wine, beer, frozen seafood, fruit yoghurts, and dried fruits. Some of these sulphites have been shown to destroy vitamin B1 and vitamin E in the body, whilst several have been linked to asthma-related allergies.
Another preservative that should give cause for concern is borax (E285), used to increase the elasticity and crispness of foods and found in processed cereals, nuts and fruit. Linked to liver cancer, borax is another preservative allowed in the UK but banned in the USA.
Aspartame (E951), which has become widespread in processed food in a very short space of time, is an artificial sweetener 200 times sweeter than sugar. Ironically, it is predominantly used in a variety of “sugar-free” and “low calorie” foods, including “diet” fizzy drinks, cereals, crisps, yoghurts, salad dressings, chewing gum and cooking sauces. Aspartame has been linked to headaches, migraines, dizziness as well as more serious disorders.
I won’t go on (although believe me, this is just a small sample of what I could have written about these E additives). The point I am making is how prevalent these chemicals have become in the food we eat, and how potentially damaging to our health some of them are.
Food preservation was once, and in many instances still is, a natural and sensible process for making best use of surpluses in times of abundance. But increasingly, artificial preservatives are being used not for the benefit of us consumers but for the benefit of the manufacturer and the supermarket, in effect fooling us into believing the food we buy is fresher and more wholesome than it really is.
Fundamentally, this overdependence on obscure, artificial and sometimes dangerous preservatives is also a symptoms of our dislocation from the fresh, locally produced, natural foods our forebears ate and which should always be our first choice in maintaining a healthy diet.
On the subject of surpluses, this time of year my allotment plot, the Circus Garden, produces raspberries faster than we can eat them. Although they freeze well, this simple recipe is another way of naturally preserving their fruity goodness. The resulting vinegar makes for a delicious addition to salad dressings.
Of the hundred or so recipes I have published on this blog, this one has the dual distinction of both being the easiest to make and taking the longest to prepare.
200 g fresh raspberries
300 ml organic cider vinegar
1. Wash the raspberries and place in a non metallic bowl. Break them down by lightly mashing with a wooden spoon. Pour over the cider vinegar. Stir, then cover the bowl with clingfilm and set to one side. Leave the mixture to infuse for several days (I left mine for a week to intensify the flavour), uncovering to stir the mixture once a day and then covering again.
2. Strain the vinegar through a muslin cloth set over a fine sieve. Pour the strained liquid into one or more sterilised glass containers and seal. The vinegar will keep for up to a year if stored out of direct sunlight.