Scientists May Have Found the Ultimate Food Preservative, and It's Entirely Plant-Based

Flavonoids are found in just about every fruit and vegetable on the planet — and they play a key role in protecting them. Rattiya Thongdumhyu/Shutterstock

Artificial preservatives have long been used to keep our food from spoiling, ensuring there's more of it to go around. And not just food. Pharmaceuticals and even cosmetics are routinely steeped in artificial preservatives to keep them around longer. But what price, (near) immortality?

As good a job as these chemicals do in keeping things from spoiling, they may not do a very good job preserving us.

In July, the American Academy of Pediatrics warned about the dangers of our reliance on them, especially when it comes to treating meat products. The preservatives most commonly used — sodium nitrate and nitrite — may block thyroid hormone production in children. They have also been linked to several types of cancer.

But how do we feed a growing worldwide population if we can't keep food from going bad? The answer may have been hiding in plain sight: good old flavonoids, a kind of phytonutrient that's found in nearly every fruit and vegetable.

In a new study, researchers at Nanyang Technological University (NTU) in Singapore tapped into the power of flavonoids as a preservative and found it protected food better than its artificial counterparts.

In experiments, the NTU team implanted the natural trigger that produces flavonoids in baker's yeast. The resulting flavonoids boasted two crucial qualities for food preservation: antimicrobial and antioxidant effects.

Lab samples of meat and juice.
The naturally occurring chemicals kept meats and juices from spoiling for much longer than artificial preservatives. NTU Singapore

"This organic food preservative is derived from plants and produced from food grade microbes, which means that it is 100 percent natural," lead study author William Chen noted in a press release. "It is also more effective than artificial preservatives and does not require any further processing to keep food fresh."

Those flavonoids were matched up against synthetic counterparts in the lab and used to treat meat and fruit juices that were kept at room temperature. The artificial preservatives managed to hold off bacteria for about six hours. Meanwhile, the flavonoid-fortified food kept things bacteria-free for a whopping two days.

Again, that's without refrigeration.

It shouldn't come as too much of a surprise that naturally occurring chemicals may prove to be the ultimate preservative. After all, plants have always relied on them to beat back harmful pathogens and pests. Flavonoids even offer a protective bulwark allowing plants to stare down the sun for long hours.

If flavonoids can be recruited as a preservative for human food, we may soon say goodbye to harmful nitrates — and perhaps be able to keep what we produce around for longer than ever.

"This may open new doors in food preservation technologies, providing a low-cost solution for industries," Chen adds. "Which will in turn encourage a sustainable food production system that can produce healthier food that stay fresh longer."