History of antioxidants in food

Throughout history, fats and oils have been a fundamental part of human food due to their nutritional properties, their caloric intake and many other beneficial properties for food. They have even come to be regarded as authentic luxuries within the reach of very few.

Since mankind began to accumulate and store their food, and subsequently to market it, people have always had to look for ways to protect fats and oils from spoilage and deterioration, devising different methods such as refrigeration or the use of additives to extend shelf life. Some of them have acted as real antioxidants in food.

Food additives

In the use of the additives in the food industry, the use of antioxidants was an ancient practice for food preservation (an antioxidant is a non-microbiological conservator), since, traditionally, meats and fish were cut into slices that were permeated with phenolic compounds that originated during the smoking process.

Subsequently, some researchers observed that the addition of small amounts of certain compounds could lead to a delay in the deterioration of other substances in the air. Some of the researchers who came to these conclusions are:

  • Deschamps, an Avallon pharmacist, who demonstrated the antioxidant effect of benzoin and poplar buds.
  • Chevreuil, who checked the effect of oak.
  • The Lumiere and Seyewetz brothers discovered the antioxidant role of hydroquinone and analogous compounds.
  • Moureu and Dufraisse, who summarized their work in a memoir titled “Catalyse et autoxidation; Activité antioxygene et prooxygene “(1926).

With the passage of time and after the Second World War, where the ghost of hunger was present in society, poultry and pork production experienced a great increase. This growth is explained by the need to satisfy, in a fast and abundant way, the increasing demand for protein from animal origin; such an increase intensified the exploitation of these species, and therefore gave rise to a necessary adaptation. After this stage, in the mid-twentieth century and with the advent of globalization, the limits that impeded trade and stressed the need to adapt to the challenges and opportunities were met, increasing the export market and allowing a greater international presence. In this political and social framework the need to search for factors that increase competitiveness such as the use of additives was a key factor in achieving efficiency for the industry.

Cell oxidation process

To understand the importance of antioxidants as additives in the food industry, we must first understand what cell oxidation is. In a very general way, this occurs when an unstable atom loses an electron (negatively charged particle), which allows it to form a new compound with another element, causing an imbalance between the production of reactive oxygen species and the capacity of a system to cleanse the body of harmful substances.

Historically it was believed that adding oxygen to the fatty acid molecule formed a four-atom ring as the primary reaction product. This molecule is called “peroxide”. However, what is actually formed is a hydroperoxide due to the addition of oxygen to the alpha carbon of the double bond. In spite of this, the historical denomination still persists and peroxides are still used to refer to the products of the degradation of a fat.

The oxygen we use to breathe is one of the main responsible factors for cell oxidation, and serves to produce energy throughout the body, but small portions of this element produce free radicals, which form normally in the body when metabolized. Within our human organism exists a balance between reactive oxygen species and antioxidant defense systems. When this balance is altered or decompensated in favor of those, there is the so-called oxidative stress, which means that the stress can be triggered by solar radiation, inflammatory and immunological responses, alcoholism, smoking, vitamin deficiency and other factors.


It may interest you: The oxidation process in fats and oils


Finally, we can conclude that antioxidants in food play an important role in modern technology in the treatment and conservation of food. Their correct use depends, fundamentally, on both the knowledge of the mechanisms of autoxidation and the factors that condition them and on the nature of the processes on which the activity of the different anti-oxidation processes is based. What should be clear is that antioxidants can not improve the quality of a mediocre product. Therefore, the best means of limiting oxidative deterioration is to start from a quality product, to avoid the conditions favoring oxidation, and to conveniently exploit those combinations of the various types of antioxidant systems which may be used in each case and in each moment.

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