Who wants to eat Sodium Benzoate? How about Sodium Nitrite, or Sulfite, or Sulfur Dioxide, or Propyl Glycol, Propyl Paraben? How about Butylated Hydroxyanisole (BHA)? These are all very common artificial preservatives added to your packaged goods to prevent against spoilage. These do not sound very appetizing, yet they are common.
While this may contrast most current thinking (and indeed research) about preservatives as evil additives, recent headlines by Burger King (who are now preservative free) got me thinking: is there a reason to not only use, but to embrace preservatives?
Renee’s Dressings was one of the early pioneers of the clean-label movement. They are (infamously) “proud to expire” and Burger King is following suit by moving in the same direction. Now granted, if you bought a whopper, chances are you’d eat it almost immediately, and not wait for 28 days, but the point they’re making is clear: clean eating is important enough for to spend millions of dollars on a marketing campaign on it. But I wonder, what was BK using last year? And before Renee’s was purchased by Kraft Heinz in 2006, before they were a publicly traded entity, before everything when it was just Renee and her small company - were they worried about shelf stability and the company’s claim to a preservative free dressing?
Here’s why I ask and why I’m actually for the use of [some] preservatives: their use, natural or otherwise, by its very definition, elongates the life of the product. Refrigeration or freezing a food accomplishes that goal by mitigating the circumstances under which your product grows mold, goes rancid or in some other way, starts to degrade. However, not every company has the capital to develop, produce, distribute, market and sell a refrigerated product. If you’re a foodpreneur or small company and you’ve bulldozed your way through the aforementioned logistical challenges, you have a much bigger one in getting your product off the shelves in time for the end consumer to enjoy it before it deteriorates. Sounds easy, but it is absolutely the toughest challenge that Bald Baker has ever faced. I dare say that it is the number one challenge facing food companies today.
Think about the timeline of a supply chain for a moment: the input ingredients, if all natural (like ours: almond flour, flax meal, etc) all have a definite shelf life. You buy them from a distributor and then ship them to your warehouse where they wait to be transformed into finished goods. In optimal circumstances, that could be approximately one month. You produce, and by adding heat, you kill off some bacteria, but then your packaged product waits to get shipped to a distribution warehouse. Maybe three days. Sits in a distribution warehouse waiting to be shipped to a retailer’s warehouse. Up to one month. Retailer ships from their warehouse in a non temperature controlled truck, to the store where it sits waiting to get merchandised. Up to one week. Finally put on a shelf and waits to get sold. At this point, up to two or three months may have elapsed before you have the chance to consume it. And let’s face it, just because your product is on a shelf doesn’t mean it will get sold immediately. So, if you are NOT using preservatives, and your product IS NOT distributed or stored in cold or frozen space, then what gives? Somewhere, something has to.
Paradoxically, let’s say that your company recognizes the time crunch and does use a preservative. If it’s February 23, 2020, would you want to buy and eat a cookie that was made last year? It’s one thing to see a best before date 6 months in advance, but if you back track, that also means that in six months, if you’re about to eat that product, it was made more than six months ago, which if you think about it, is somewhat gross.
Damned if you do, and damned if you don’t. In most cases, the decision is made for you. If you want your product to be sold in a store, you absolutely must use a preservative. To prove my point, guess how long a natural loaf of bread, bought at a farmers market will last. Two days. So the question turns to, what preservatives allow you to claim that your product is ‘clean label’ but also help your products stay fresh for long enough to be sold, consumed and enjoyed?
Bald Baker uses a few that I’m proud of. For example, our brownie relies on rosemary extract (a natural anti-oxidant) and apple cider vinegar. While a bit unconventional, the acetic acid in vinegar kills most microbes. Many of my competitors also use a product labelled as “mixed tocopherols” which are actually just mixed forms of vitamin E and/or very low volumes of “citric acid;” a naturally occurring acid found in fruits. Bear in mind though, these preservatives are very expensive (rosemary is approximately $50/kg and can only be purchased in 20kg drums) and can be difficult to come by. By comparison, I was able to buy a 4kg drum of far-more effective propylene glycol for $8.
Similar to how companies are constantly coming up with new natural, safe and healthy sweeteners, the food world is aggressively exploring ways to cheaply and naturally preserve products available for sale. Not everybody can afford a $6.99 small bottle of refrigerated, preservative-free salad dressing. Successfully creating, scaling and marketing that product in today’s market would be a Herculean task. As a consumer, how much are you willing to spend on a cookie, given that it’s clean label, vegan, artificial preservative-free, gluten-free, etc? There are not that many people willing to pay $4, $5, $6… even though the input and distribution costs to get it to market warrant that retail price. After all, it is just a cookie, right?
Must be nice for Kraft and Burger King who have hundreds of millions of dollars in place to ensure that their supply chains enable the rapid distribution, merchandising and sale and returns of unsold clean label products. For the rest of us who are creating truly amazing, innovative products without said capital and without a multinational resource base, we are doing the best we can. Please remember that when you see our products on the shelves - we are doing the best we can.