E218

Methylparaben (methyl para‑hydroxybenzoate)

  • Our verdict: 4 - we recommend avoiding
  • Latest update & fact check: 10.7.2024 - Rebecca Taylor, CNP
  • Origin: It is produced synthetically and does not come from natural sources.

E218 Methylparaben, also known as methyl para‑hydroxybenzoate, is a chemical compound commonly used as a preservative in various products, including food, pharmaceuticals, and cosmetics. It appears as a white crystalline powder that is easily soluble in alcohol and slightly soluble in water. Methylparaben is valued for its antimicrobial properties, particularly against molds and yeasts, which helps to extend the shelf life of products.

Origin

Methylparaben can be found naturally in several fruits and vegetables, such as blueberries, where it acts as a preservative. However, the majority of the methylparaben used commercially is synthetically produced. The synthetic process typically involves the esterification of para‑hydroxybenzoic acid with methanol, resulting in the formation of methylparaben.

Characteristics

Methylparaben is used in food and other products for several reasons:

  • Antimicrobial Properties: It inhibits the growth of molds, yeasts, and bacteria, thereby extending the shelf life of products.
  • Stability: It remains stable over a wide pH range and is effective in both acidic and alkaline conditions.
  • Non‑Volatile: It does not evaporate easily, which helps maintain its preservative effect over time.

Uses in Ultra‑Processed Foods

In ultra‑processed foods, methylparaben is used primarily for its preservative qualities. Here’s a look at its applications:

  • Preventing Spoilage: Methylparaben prevents spoilage caused by microbial growth, especially molds and yeasts. This is crucial in products with a high sugar content or those that are moist, as these conditions are conducive to microbial growth.
  • Extending Shelf Life: By inhibiting the growth of microorganisms, methylparaben helps in significantly extending the shelf life of products, making them more durable for transport and storage.
  • Maintaining Quality: It helps maintain the original quality of the food, ensuring that taste, texture, and appearance remain consistent over time.
  • Reducing Food Waste: By extending shelf life, it helps in reducing food waste, which is economically beneficial and environmentally friendly.

Health Considerations

While methylparaben is generally considered safe for use in food, there are some health considerations to keep in mind:

  • Allergic Reactions: Some individuals may experience allergic reactions or sensitivities to parabens, although this is relatively rare.
  • Hormonal Disruption: There have been concerns about parabens potentially disrupting endocrine function because they can mimic estrogen. However, the levels used in food are typically very low, and regulatory bodies such as the FDA and EFSA have deemed them safe within specified limits.
  • Breast Cancer: Research involving humans is too scarce to definitively establish a link between parabens and breast cancer. However, studies on cells and animals indicate that such a connection is plausible. Parabens might play a role in different stages of tumor development and growth, and they may also facilitate the spread of cancer cells to other areas of the body.
  • Cumulative Exposure: Although individual exposure levels are considered safe, there is ongoing research into the effects of cumulative exposure from multiple sources (e.g., food, cosmetics, pharmaceuticals).

References

  1. Anderson, F. A., & Castle, L. (2003). Parabens: From Environmental Studies to Human Health. Journal of Applied Toxicology, 23(4), 285‑293.
  2. Elder, R. L. (1984). Final Report on the Safety Assessment of Methylparaben, Ethylparaben, Propylparaben, and Butylparaben. Journal of the American College of Toxicology, 3(5), 147‑209.
  3. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). (2021). Food Additive Status List. Retrieved from FDA Website.
  4. European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). (2004). Opinion of the Scientific Panel on Food Additives, Flavourings, Processing Aids and Materials in Contact with Food (AFC) on a request from the Commission related to para‑hydroxybenzoates (E 214‑219). EFSA Journal, 83, 1‑26.