Contrary to popular misbelief, parabens are not diabolical chemical poisons invented by mad scientists to inflict havoc on human health. Parabens do have direct correlates in nature. In fact, all plants normally produce p-hydroxybenzoic acid, albeit in small quantities (Viitanen P et al, Plant Physiol, 136(4), 2004). Well-known plants known to significantly synthesise parabens as defensive chemicals against attack by micro-organisms include carrot, olive, cucumber, honeysuckle and ylang ylang (Bach M et al, Plant Physiol, 103(2), 1993); (Aziz N et al, Microbios 93(374), 1998); Smith-Becker J et al, Plant Physiol, 116(1), 1998); (Dweck A, “Natural Preservatives”, Cosmet Toilet, Aug 2003).

Plants known to synthesise Methyl paraben include Granadilla (A Naidoo, Natural Food Anti-microbial Systems, CRC Press, 2001); Birthwort (Aristolochia kankauensis) (Wu T et al, Phytochem, 36(4), 1994); Guan pepper (Piper guanacastensis) (Pereda-Miranda R et al, J Nat Prod, 60(3), 1997); Coprophilous fungus (Guanomyces polythrix) (Macias M et al, J Nat Prod, 63(6), 2000); Thale cress (Arabidopsis thaliana) (Walker T et al, J Agric Food Chem, 51, 2548, 2003) and Oca (Oxalis tuberosa) (Pal Bais H et al, Plant Physiol Biochem, 41(4), 2003). Plants known to synthesise Propyl paraben include Mango (Mangifera indica) (Chirawut B, Sangchote S, 15th Australasian Plant Pathology Society Conference, Deakin University, Geelong, 26-29 September, 2005), and Verticillium spp, [filamentous fungi that inhabit decaying vegetation and soil (read “organic” produce)] (El Aissama A, Mycopathologia, 144(2), 1999). Combined sources of both contain methyl and propyl parabens include Cloudberry (Rubus clamaemows) (Baardseth P, Russwurm J, Food Chem, 3(1), 1978) and Royal bee jelly (Ishiwata H, Yamada T, Food Sanit, 50 (7), 2000). Methyl & Propyl parabens are 100% nature identical to that consumed by millions of individuals in perfectly natural foods.

According to the American Academy of Dermatology “The best preservatives for sensitive skin are those containing parabens” (2002 Prof Zoe Draelos, Summer Scientific Meeting, New York, AAD, 2002). Methyl-paraben and Propyl-paraben, as used by Gaia Organics are para-natural compounds prepared from p-hydroxybenzoic acid, widely distributed in many fruits and spices and also in black and green teas. Benzoic acid occurs naturally in high concentrations in gum benzoin from the Styrax tree and is naturally present in many foods, including honey. Both parabens are routinely used as preservatives in beer, fruit juices, jams, and wine. (Timothy Paustian, Microbiology Textbook, University of Wisconsin-Madison, 2004)

The benzoates, including sodium benzoate, are widely used as antimycotic and antibacterial preservatives in foods and beverages and exhibit little or no toxicity in the concentrations used. The effects of orally administered benzoates have been observed for well over a century and large doses (up to 60 grams!) are well tolerated. The parabens are allocated the same GRAS (Generally Regarded As Safe) status as natural benzoic acid and the same maximum level is permitted in food (in processed vegetables, baked goods, fats and oils and in seasonings, to name just a few), approved by the US Food and Drug Administration and other national agencies worldwide as a direct food additive in amounts ranging from 0.0001% to 0.10%. Parabens entering the human body are hydrolysed to the even more benign parent compound, forms natural compounds and like the completely natural benzoates, are eliminated in the urine. (Metcalf D, et al, Food Allergy: Adverse Reactions to Foods and Food Additives, Blackwell Scientific Publications, 1991)

The antimicrobial properties of the parabens are effective over a much broader pH range than benzoic acid. The acute and chronic toxicity, carcinogenicity, teratogenicity and mutagenicity of the parabens were extensively reviewed by the Life Sciences Research Office of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, which concluded that “there were no short-term toxicological consequences in man and no long-term toxicological consequences in rats greatly exceeding amounts currently ‘consumed’ in the normal diet” (Schmidt A, Methylparaben & Propylparaben: Affirmation of GRAS status of direct human food ingredients, Federal Register, 38: 20048-50, 1973). Methyl and propyl parabens have such weak oestrogenic activity that no activity was detected in vivo in classical uterotrophic assays using high dose oral or subcutaneous rodent administrations (AFC Panel, European Food Safety Authority, 13 July 2004).

A safety assessment from a review of the published literature is abstracted here: “Methyl-paraben and Propyl-paraben are stable, non-volatile compounds and have been safely used as antimicrobial preservatives in foods and cosmetics for over 50 years. There is no evidence of accumulation via the gastrointestinal tract and dermis. Acute toxicity studies indicate that the parabens are relatively non-toxic by the oral route and mildly irritating to the skin. Following chronic administration, no-observed-effect levels (NOEL) as high as 1200-4000 mg/kg are reported and a no-observed-adverse-effect level (NOAEL) in the rat is posited at 5500 mg/kg. The parabens are not carcinogenic, mutagenic or clastogenic. Contact sensitisation has occurred when parabens have been applied to damaged or broken skin but high concentrations of 5-15% in patch testing are needed to elicit reaction in susceptible individuals.” (Soni M, et al, Food Chem Toxicol, 39(6), 2001); (Soni M, et al, Food Chem Toxicol, 40(10), 2002)

The oestrogenic activity of parabens is so weak that no more than a handful of scientists have even mentioned the fact and only one team, basking in an inexplicable glow of media attention, has suggested that their ubiquity might represent any risk to consumers at all, which suggestion they admit, remained unsubstantiated. In fact, due to lack of subsequent confirmation, parabens have been off the scientific radar for several years now and it is difficult to understand why parabens are still a pariah, other than the ignorant or malicious agendas alluded to previously. The following facts should put any possible risk into perspective.

The fact that the following have potent oestrogenic activity, rests in scientific archives, the whereabouts of which those crying wolf over parabens, remain blissfully unaware: alfalfa, almonds, anise, apple, banana, barley, broccoli, cabbage, canola, cauliflower, carrot, cherry, chickpea; clover, coffee, corn, cumin, damiana, fennel, flaxseed, garlic, green bean, hop, lemon, lemon balm, licorice, lima bean seeds, mint, oats, oregano, pea, pinto bean seeds, pomegranate, plum, potato, rice, rice bran, rye, rape, sage, sesame, soybean, split pea, sunflower seed, thyme, tumeric, verbena, wheat, wheat bran, wheat germ, yam & yeast. Included are the oils of olive, corn, safflower, wheat germ, soyabean, rice bran, peanut and coconut. (Sob M, Naturally Occurring Estrogens, in CRC Handbook of Naturally Occurring Food Toxicants, Miloslav R (Ed), CRC Press, 1983); (Davis D & Bradlow H, Sci Amer, Oct 1995); (Davis D et al, Nature Sci Med, May/June 1997); (Zava D et al, Proc Soc Exp Biol Med, 217(3), 1998)

A number of botanicals have been identified as putative estrogenic agents (Piersen C, Integrative Cancer Therapies, 2(2), 2003). All of the abovementioned foodstuffs naturally contain phytoestrogens. All are in fact endocrine disrupters, ie. exogenous agents that interfere with the production, release, transport, metabolism, binding, action or elimination of natural hormones in the body. These effects are unpredictable, are not well delineated and are often paradoxical, sometimes beneficial or hazardous (Barrett J. Phytoestrogens, friends or foes? Environmental Health Perspectives 104(5), 1996); (Jacob D et al, Exp Biol Med, 226(4), 2001). Just like the improperly maligned parabens, risk/benefit analysis is dependent on dose and circumstances, not the mere name of a single or group of chemicals (parabens), natural or otherwise.

The human diet contains several nonsteroidal estrogenic compounds structurally similar to natural and synthetic estrogens and antiestrogens. Dietary estrogens are either produced by plants (phytoestrogens) or by fungi that infect plants (mycoestrogens). Consumers of non-organic produce might take heart from the fact that high nitrogen fertiliser applications reduce endocrine disrupter content and that plants induce production of endocrine disrupters in response to attack by insects, bacteria or fungi, which is just one of several reasons why even bad conventional agriculture can be superior to even good organics. While the estrogenic potency of synthetic estrogenic chemicals is very limited, phytoestrogens are potent and may trigger many of the biological responses that are evoked by the physiological estrogens (Kuiper G et al, Endocrinology, 139(10), 1998). The natural endocrine disrupters genistein, coumestrol and zearalenone (mycotoxin) stimulate the transcriptional activity of estrogen receptors at considerably lower concentrations (100X) than synthetics (Bernhoft A, Endocrine Disrupters - Synthetic Chemical Contaminants and Natural Compounds in the Diet, Lecture, Norwegian Acad Sci Letters, 1997).

Many of the phytoestrogens that occur in plants have not yet been examined for their genotoxic potential. Some have been studied, showing that Coumestrol (high concentrations in clover and alfalfa sprouts, lower concentrations in sunflower seeds, lima bean seeds, pinto bean seeds, and round split peas), genistein (high in soy, lower in other legumes, eg chickpeas) and zearalenone (a heat-stable fungal mycotoxin, found on cereals grains eg corn, wheat and rice) are clastogenic in cultured mammalian cells and lead to genotoxic mutations. The genotoxicity acts in concert with their hormonal activity to give rise to carcinogenic effects. (Kulling S, Metzler M. Food Chem Toxicol 35:605-13, 1996); (Metzler M et al, Zeitschrift für Lebensmitteluntersuchung und Forschung, 206(6), 1998) On the other hand, flax mammalian lignans (enterolactone and enterodiol) are anticarcinogens in epidemiological and biochemical studies, are devoid of clastogenic potential and not genotoxic (Kulling S et al, Mutat Res, 416(1-2), 1998).

Most phytoestrogens show some beneficial effects on estrogen-dependent disease. However, these can also promote tumor growth (Hilakivi-Clarke L et al, Oncol Rep, 6(5), 1999); (Newbold R et al, Cancer Res, 61(11), 2001) and cause developmentally adverse effects (Delclos K et al, Reprod Toxicol, 15(6), 2001); (Jefferson W, Newbold R, Nutrition 16(7-8), 2000). The risks and benefits of estrogenic or anti-estrogenic effects depend on the target tissue and the timing and level of exposure. A thorough analysis of the properties of these compounds is warranted. (Mueller S et al, Toxicological Sciences, 80(1), 2004) Let us heed the trusted modern toxicological axiom pertinently observed and recorded by Paracelsus in 1538: “All things are poison and nothing is without poison. Solely the dose determines that a thing is not a poison.”

In spite of my methodically laying out the evidence of misinformation on several topics, including some of the foregoing, engaging and conveying this information to all parties early in 2005 (See “The Biofilth Files: Have You Been Enchantricked?here and “The Essential Files: Are Your Toddlers Truly Naturebabes?here, the Esse, Enchantrix, Naturebabes, Amba and other websites still carry miscontextualised scare-mongering propaganda, including about supposed endocrine disruption from paraben preservatives, whilst their alternatives hypocritically comprise of far more and far more potent endocrine disruptor materials. See our “Grapefruit Seed Extract as Preservative Alternative to Parabens” exposé here.

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