What Are Parabens and Why Are They In My Food?
Parabens showed up on the Environmental Working Group’s Dirty Dozen Guide to Food Additives. NPR has talked about them, and there’s even a petition out there to have them removed from foods altogether. But, what exactly are parabens and why are they used in our food? Are they dangerous? We went in search of the facts from Dr. Carl Winter, PhD, FoodSafe Program, Extension Food Toxicologist at the University of California-Davis, and Dr. Sean O’Keefe, a professor in the Department of Food Science and Technology at Virginia Tech’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, to help us understand what parabens are all about.
What are parabens?
Parabens are chemicals that are commonly used in cosmetics and foods because of their preservative activities. Some parabens that enter the food chain are of natural origin while others are synthesized chemically.
Parabens are para-hydroxybenzoic acid esters, which are used as antimicrobial compounds. The esters include methyl, ethyl, propyl, butyl and benzyl forms.
Why are parabens used in food production?
Parabens are preservatives, and inhibit the growth of microorganisms that could otherwise reduce the shelf life of food products by causing spoilage, or, in extreme cases, could cause illness.
They are primarily used for food preservation, prevention of mold, yeast and bacteria growth.
What foods contain parabens?
Parabens are used in a wide variety of food and beverage products and exposure to parabens at current levels is not a health concern.
Because of the widespread use in cosmetics, personal care products and some foods, parabens are widely consumed. A recent study reported that most foods they examined contained parabens at some level. The report states, “There are multiple sources that contribute to human exposure to parabens, and our study suggests that diet is a minor source.”
Is it safe for me and my family to consume parabens?
While analysis of food products and biomonitoring studies have clearly indicated that consumers are frequently exposed to parabens, the key point is that exposure to parabens is at levels far lower than those considered to be of any health consequence. Parabens have extremely low levels of toxicity, and exposure to parabens, either naturally occurring or synthetic, is not a health concern based upon current levels of exposure. The first principle of toxicology applies here: “The dose makes the poison.” It is the amount of the chemical, not its presence or absence, that determines the potential for harm. One scientific paper described a possible role of parabens in causing breast cancer. Unfortunately, no control samples were used in the study and no additional scientific studies have been published supporting this hypothesis.
Exposure from food is a minor component of total intake and there is no evidence that warrants concern. Most parabens in humans comes from cosmetics and personal care products, not foods. Since the FDA believes that at the present time there is no reason for consumers to be concerned about the use of cosmetics containing parabens, I don’t think there is evidence that suggests exposure to parabens at levels used today is unsafe.
A widely-touted study supposedly showed a link between parabens use in cosmetics and breast cancer (McGrath, 2003). They reported that the more women shaved underarms and used anti-perspirants, the sooner they got breast cancer. This study suggested aluminum was responsible, but some have suggested parabens might be responsible. This study has not been replicated, making conclusions difficult as we often find results from a study that are odd (some studies show no effect of secondhand smoke on cancer rates, etc.).
Unfortunately, epidemiological studies like this one are simply unable to show cause and effect and can lead to very strange conclusions. For example, there is a strong correlation between cardiovascular disease rates and rates of electric razor use between countries. This isn’t because of razors, it is because of other factors that are associated with higher standard of living, of which electric razor use is one.
Are there any alternatives to using parabens in food?
There are many other non-paraben preservatives that could substitute for parabens in foods. Substitutions, however, may alter the stability of the food product.
Parabens are the best antimicrobials for neutral pH products.
Do parabens disrupt the endocrine system?
Many compounds disrupt the endocrine system, including parabens. However, studies that show effects often use levels that are orders of magnitude higher than levels consumed by humans, which makes the results meaningless. A 2002 study suggested potential negative effects of parabens consumption on sperm production in rats and, according to the researchers, the exposure level observed was equivalent to the upper-limit acceptable daily intake of parabens in both the EU and Japan. However, the study has been criticized because it did not follow well-established scientific protocols.
This report concludes: “As already concluded in earlier opinions, Methyl Paraben and Ethyl Paraben are not subject of concern. The Scientific Committee for Consumer Products is of the opinion that, based upon the available data, the safety assessment of Propyl and Butyl Paraben cannot be finalized yet.”
“Tortilla Basket” by David Bote Estrada is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.