The world of food preservatives can be confusing and a bit disorienting. One the one hand, the importance of certain additives for food safety can’t be understated.
While on the other hand, you’re being bombarded with messaging that tells you to avoid artificial and processed foods.
So how can you avoid food spoilage by oxidation and microorganisms while maintaining a healthy diet?
You simply need to know what to watch out for.
What Are Preservatives?
The concept of preserving food, allowing it to last longer, dates back as far as history can recall.
Our ancestors would freeze meat on ice, allow fruits and vegetables to dry in the sun, or ferment foods to enhance shelf-life. All of these natural processes allowed people to stock up for the Winter, and settle down into communities[*].
But we’ve come a long way since our hunter-gatherer days. The need to stock up for the Winter is certainly not a topic of concern today.
In fact, the rise of packaged foods has made it easier than ever to find sustenance.
The need to keep food fresh, however, has not diminished.
Preservatives that are added to your food protect the food from spoiling. They act as antioxidants, fighting free radical damage, and antimicrobials, protecting against bacteria.
You can be sure that pretty much every food you buy in the store (other than fresh produce and meat), has some type of preservative.
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Some preservatives are natural, like the antioxidants Vitamin C and E. While other preservatives are chemical, like sodium benzoate and BHT.
The health benefits vs. detriments of preservatives depends on how your body handles them. Some foods like sauerkraut and kim chi and naturally fermented, this creates a type of preservation that your body typically responds well to.
On the other hand, when your body doesn’t recognize chemicals added to your food for preservation, it may result in health issues.
To be clear, completely avoiding preservatives is not necessary, and frankly, would be incredibly difficult in this day and age. But to avoid the downfalls of potentially harmful preservatives you just need to know what to look out for.
Below is a list of common preservatives that might show up on your food labels.
Top Preservatives to Avoid
Sulfites (also labeled sulphites) are added to your food as a preservative for their antioxidant properties. Their role in preservation enhances the shelf-life of your food, as well as the color.
Common forms of sulfites in food include sodium sulfite, potassium bisulfite, sodium bisulfite, or sodium metabisulfite.
Wine is one of the most common places you’ll find sulfites added. Although sulfites are naturally occurring in most wine, the addition of sulfites stops the fermentation process and adds preservation and protection against oxidation.
In addition to wine, sulfites can also be found in dried and canned fruits and vegetables, nut butters, and a variety of condiments.
The use of sulfites dates back thousands of years (all the way back to ancient Greece and Rome), as purification compounds. They act as antioxidants, fighting off spoilage caused by reactive oxygen species.
The issue, however, is that some people have strong adverse reactions to the amount of sulfites that you’ll find in our food supply these days.
Common issues that arise from sulfite exposure include dermatitis, low blood pressure, hives, abdominal pain, and diarrhea[*].
What’s most concerning is the effect that sulfites can have on your air passageways. Although the exact mechanism is not known, those with sensitivities can experience bronchoconstriction — tightening and constriction of the airways.
People with asthma appear to be at greater risk of adverse reactions[*].
#2: Sodium Benzoate
Sodium benzoate (also known as benzoic acid) is used as an antimicrobial agent to delay the spoilage of food by microorganisms. It’s commonly used in acidic foods like jams, fruit juice, carbonated drinks, and vinegars.
In vitro studies point to the potential of sodium benzoate to damage your DNA at the chromosome level. This type of damage could lead to immune challenges and diseases like cancer[*].
When benzoates in your food degrade, they can form a compound called benzene. The International Agency for Research On Cancer (IARC) recognizes benzene as a carcinogen, (a compound that can cause cancer).
What’s more, the presence of ascorbic acid (another type of preservative commonly used in beverages) can accelerate the production of benzoates to benzene. This is concerning considering that many soft drinks use both ascorbic acid and sodium benzoate to maintain shelf life[*].
Sodium benzoate consumption is also linked to Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).
In one study, a group of college students were given a survey to determine ADHD symptoms and corresponding intakes of sodium benzoate. The researchers found a strong correlation between the student’s intake of sodium benzoate, and subsequent ADHD symptomatology[*].
An in vitro study also found that sodium benzoate may cause oxidation in human red blood cells[*].
What does that mean?
Oxidative damage to your red blood cells could impair oxygen delivery to the rest of your body. With oxygen being an essential nutrient for the health of every cell in your body, this could lead to vital organ damage[*].
Nitrites (commonly labeled as sodium nitrite) are another antimicrobial preservative used widely in processed meat products.
Common foods you can find nitrites in include cured meats, bacon, sausages, and salami.
In your body, nitrites can form nitric oxide, a compound that helps your blood vessels dilate and can lead to lowered blood pressure[*].
While this is good news for most people, under certain conditions nitrites can also form nitrosamines — which have been linked to certain types of cancer.
The formation of nitrites to nitrosamines happens in the presence of amino acids (the building blocks of protein). The addition of heat and/or processing can enhance the production of nitrosamines.
Since the most common use case for nitrites is in processed meats, the combination of nitrites and amino acids creates the perfect storm for nitrosamine production.
There is a well-established correlation between processed meat consumption and the risk of stomach cancer. Researchers believe that nitrosamines are likely responsible for this association[*][*].
BHA (butylated hydroxyanisole) is used in foods as a chemical antioxidant, scavenging free radicals, and protecting foods from oxidative damage.
It’s most commonly used to prevent oils from becoming rancid, and to preserve the flavor, odor, and color of packaged foods.
The National Institute of Health recognizes BHA as “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen”[*].
So why then, you may ask, is it still in your food supply?
Sufficient human trials have not yet been done to determine the detrimental effects of BHA.
However, when researchers gave BHA to rats, it led to the formation of tumors in their stomachs as well as their urinary bladders[*].
#5: Calcium Disodium EDTA
EDTA (Ethylenediamine tetraacetic acid) is known as a chelating agent. Chelating agents bind to other chemicals and prevent them from reacting with your food and causing oxidative damage.
EDTA is used to preserve color, odor, flavor, and texture in many foods. Some common foods that you’ll find EDTA in include dressings, mayonnaise, soft drinks, and canned foods[*].
EDTA is generally recognized as safe (GRAS) for human consumption. However, in rats, the addition of EDTA during pregnancy resulted in birth defects of the pups[*].
There’s also reason to believe that EDTA may chelate zinc, an essential mineral in your body. The loss of zinc could lead to issues with zinc-binding proteins in your body, which are crucial for gene expression[*].
Sorbates (sorbic acid) are used in food as antimicrobial agents to help control the growth of bacteria like mold and yeast. Two common sorbates are sodium sorbate and potassium sorbate, which are found in cheese, meat, and baked goods.
In an in vitro study, sodium sorbate was found to be toxic to human immune cells, causing DNA damage.
The lymphocyte cells (immune cells) in the study were treated with four different concentrations of sodium sorbate. All four concentrations resulted in DNA damage, with the highest level resulting in toxicity[*].
In another study, researchers examined the interaction between potassium sorbate (PS) and two other common additives; ascorbic acid and ferrus-salt. These three additives are often used together in food products.
The researchers found that when these three additives were used together, it resulted in oxidation, which in turn caused DNA damage[*].
Potassium bromate is a common additive found in bread and bread products. It’s added to dough to help hold the dough together, and also has a role in preserving the bread for longer shelf-life.
While bread is likely not at the top of your grocery list, it’s still worth noting the potential hazards that come along with ingesting bromate.
When rats consume potassium bromate, it acts as a “complete carcinogen.” In other words, it not only induces the production of tumors in rats, but it also promotes the growth of tumors beyond their initial stage.
Researchers found tumors in the abdominal cavity, kidneys, and thyroids of the experimental rats.
In addition, potassium bromate seems to be toxic to the kidneys of both humans and animals when given orally in research settings[*].
So what makes potassium bromate so toxic?
Researchers propose that it’s the free radical generation of potassium bromate that leads to its carcinogenic and toxic effects. Reactive oxygen species (ROS) cause damage to DNA and can, therefore, lead to dysfunction in your cells[*].
#8 Propylene Glycol
Propylene glycol is found in a wide range of packaged foods as a preservative, including many ice cream formulations for its antifreeze properties.
That’s right, antifreeze. However, unlike ethylene glycol (antifreeze you put in your car), this form of antifreeze is registered as safe for consumption by the FDA (food and drug administration)[*].
So this ingredient helps you ice cream stay smooth and creamy, what could possibly go wrong?
Symptoms associated with propylene glycol toxicity include lactic acidosis, central nervous system depression, seizures, hypoglycemia, the breakdown of red blood cells, and coma[*].
To be fair, you would have to consume an incredibly large amount of this additive to experience these side effects. That is unless you have kidney or liver disease and are unable to detoxify this substance adequately[*].
The same is true for infants, whose systems of detoxification could be easily overwhelmed[*].
Food preservation is not an intrinsically bad thing. In fact, being able to preserve food means that there’s less waste and more food to feed people.
Luckily, there are some fantastic natural alternatives to the artificial preservatives mentioned above. When scanning your ingredient lists, look for these healthier alternative preservatives.
Tocopherols are different forms of Vitamin E that act as antioxidants and emulsifiers in your food.
You’ll find tocopherols added to oils and fat due to their fat-soluble quality, and ability to stabilize these foods. They are also sable at high temperatures, making them ideal for baked goods or any food that undergoes heat[*].
#2 Rosemary Extract
Rosemary is an antioxidant-rich plant that acts as a natural preservative in meat, fish, and oil products. It can take the place of BHT and BHA, lending to a cleaner label product.
Rosemary is rich in carnosic acid, a powerful antioxidant that helps to quench ROS in your food and enhance the shelf life[*].
Rosemary extract also has antimicrobial activity; this combination of antioxidant and antimicrobial make it an ideal preservative for a range of food products[*].
#3 Ascorbic Acid
Ascorbic acid is a form of vitamin C and acts as a water-soluble antioxidant. It is found mostly in meat and cold cut products and prevents oxidation and discoloration during product storage[*].
Salt is one of the oldest forms of preservatives known to man. In fact, the original use of salt in food was for its preservation qualities.
By reducing the activity of water, salt can reduce the growth of pathogens and microorganisms that spoil products and reduce their shelf life. Unbound water is where microbes like to grow and create chemical reactions that spoil your food.
In addition, salt may also limit oxygen availability for some microorganisms, leading to cell deterioration[*].
Fermentation is believed to have been developed as a way to preserve fruits and vegetables in times of scarcity. Today, it still stands out as one of nature’s most powerful natural preservation techniques.
It’s believed that the process of fermentation goes back 5000 years to ancient Babylon, as well as ancient Egypt as far back as 1500 BC.
During the fermentation process sugar is consumed in the absence of oxygen, resulting in organic acids, gases, or alcohol.
Common foods that you’ll find fermented are sauerkraut, kim chi, yogurt, and a variety of pickled vegetables[*].
Foods To Watch Out For
While most packaged foods will contain some type of preservative, not all preservatives are created equal. Below is a list of the top foods to watch out for that commonly contain chemical preservatives.
- Candy bars and gummies
- Processed meat products
- Ice cream
- Breakfast cereal
- Chips and crackers
- Salad dressings and sauces
- Fruit juice
- Baked goods and mixes (cookie, cake, brownie)
- Microwave popcorn
Foods To Focus On
Whole foods like fruits and vegetables and fresh meat from the butcher will likely be preservative free. These foods are loaded with nutrients that your body loves and should be considered the mainstay of your diet.
There are also many health food companies out there, making healthier alternatives to the above list. They not only choose organic ingredients, but eliminate harmful food additives and opt for natural alternatives. When possible, go for the alternative versions of your classic favorites.
The use of preservatives in our food supply is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, for as long as the recorded history of food can recall, we’ve been preserving our food in one way or another.
Natural preservation protects us from unwanted chemical changes in our food and toxic exposure to bacteria like botulism.
However, artificial preservatives have their own host of health issues attached to them.
The happy medium — know your preservatives and watch out for the ones that have potentially harmful side effects. And when it doubt, if it doesn’t sound like a food– avoid it.