How did they preserve food and cosmetics in the past?

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Picking a preservative for a product formula is one of the most controversial choices a formulator has to make. Consumers seem to have an issue with just about every preservative out there, yet an unpreserved product poses an even greater safety risk from the dangers associated with microbial contamination.

Before we had fridges and ingredient knowledge of today, preservatives were not a common choice. So how did they manage to keep food in an edible condition? What about cosmetics and personal care? Read on to find out techniques they used to protect their food and cosmetic products for as long as possible.

First, lets be clear that I am talking about protecting product from microbial spoilage in particular here. Food and products were also subject to contamination from insects and rodents, but in this article I’m really looking at protection from bacteria, yeast and mould.

The two most common ways to protect food from contamination was always using salt on its own, or smoking food with salt. Smoking alone was not always enough to protect the food, but when salt was used as well, the food no longer contained enough water to enable microbial growth.

This brings us to the next method they used to protect foods (and still do): ensure they are dry. Microorganisms require at least a small percentage of what is called ‘available water’ to permit growth; so when there is absolutely no water, like dry grains or flour without humidity, then microbes cannot grow. Fruit can be dried to the point there is insufficient water present too. You’ll notice I mentioned humidity – in some cases, humidity or condensation is enough to enable growth for very opportunistic microbial species, so covering and tightly sealing dry products was important to keep any moisture out. Yeast grows well without the presence of air, but still needs some moisture.

Another way to preserve product was with large quantities of sugar. This is the basis of making jams, in some regions of the world, named ‘preserves’ for a good reason! When there is a very high sugar content in a product, the water of that product is bound strongly to the sugar molecule, meaning there is little ‘available water’ left to support microbial growth. This is why most jams will never grow bacteria – they have the greatest water requirement; and most jams rarely allow mould or yeast growth because of this very high sugar content also.

Pickling was also a common practice. There were two ways to pickle: fish and some vegetables were pickled in brine (very salty water), or using vinegar. The salty water lowers the ‘available water’ content, while vinegar is too acidic to enable microbial growth and of course imparts a tangy flavour to the food.

There were times where encouraging microbial growth in foods was safe and ideal – and still is! Think of cheese, yoghurt and all your fermented products including alcohol and even the yeast in bread… so there is good and bad even in the microscopic world.

Now that we’ve talked about foods, you may be wondering, how did they preserve cosmetics? It was actually the way they formulated their cosmetics that did most of the preserving. Back before as recent as the 1950’s, cosmetic products were nothing like the aesthetically pleasing, high water containing formulas of today; and were very different back in the 1800’s and before. Makeup was oil or powder based, and products to remove that makeup were also oil based and like ointments. Soaps were made using traditional saponification, which yields product with such a high pH (measure of acidity or alkalinity) that they prohibited any growth. Balms don’t contain water, so can’t support microbial growth. The cold creams of that era had a very low water content, and were created using alkaline materials like borax and sodium bicarbonate, so the pH of the water portion prevented growth. The creams were heavy and greasy, being mostly lard; and interestingly, borax dates back to Egyptian times where it was used for mummification – the ultimate in preservation! Finally, high quantities of alcohol were used so as to make some products self preserving, which was (and still is) the common method for making perfumes. As our cosmetic products evolved to contain large quantities of water and nutrients at very skin (and microbe) friendly pHs, thank goodness we now use much more gentle preservatives that work effectively to protect us.

Well, there is a short history of how products were preserved before the ingredients we use today. Thank goodness that now the food and cosmetic industries are highly regulated to ensure only safe and effective preservatives are used to ensure consumer safety.

I hope you enjoy that blue vein cheese with your sourdough and glass of wine; at least they are micro-organisms we still want around.

Happy reading!

Published by Belinda Carli

Belinda is the Founder and Director of the Institute, and has worked with hundreds of brands on thousands of products for over 20 years. She started her career as a Naturopath, specialising in herbal medicine, before moving into a Regulatory role within an International company overseeing a variety of personal care and ingestible therapeutic goods. She grew within this role over the years to also cover Project Management of multiple SKUs and work closely with the R&D Department, before moving into her own business as a consultant for personal care and supplement regulatory affairs and formulation. After being a private consultant for a few years, she was asked to train some of her Company Clients and decided to work with the Department of Education in Australia to develop full Government Registered and Recognised courses. She then worked with peers in the industry to develop the Diploma of Personal Care Formulation and Diploma of Cosmetic Brand Management, and finally, in 2007, the Institute of Personal Care Science and the Industry Recognised courses were launched. Since then, Belinda has grown the Institute to what it is today and has presented hundreds of videos on Youtube on various formulation, regulatory and brand management topics. She has been the Official Technical Advisor to the in-cosmetics Group internationally for 5 years and a judge on International Beauty Awards Panels for many years. She has written 5 books on Beginners and Advanced Cosmetic Formulation, Organic and Colour Cosmetic Formulation and Brand Management. She has also been a regular presenter at major International events and her work can be found in many national and International publications, UL Prospector and Special Chem formulators site. She has also created the Create Cosmetic Formulas program, an online site that enables people with no prior experience to pick and choose ingredients they want in a formula, and then shows them how to put the product together. She is a member of the Australian Society of Cosmetic Chemists (ASCC) and International Federation of Societies of Cosmetic Chemists (IFSCC). She was the winner of the Annual Industry Award from CHC Australia for her contribution to Research and Training and was a finalist in the Australian Telstra Business Women’s Awards in 3 categories.

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