Common Food Preservatives and Their Purpose

woman grocery shopping and checking the label

Food preservation has been around for centuries. It began in ancient times with the use of salt on meats and fish. Later, sugar was used in canned foods and humans began pickling vegetables. While all of those older methods are OK in moderation, today’s new chemical means of preservation are growing more and more abundant and are harmful to our bodies.

There are many benefits to food preservation, such as the ability to prevent deterioration and spoilage from mold, yeast, botulism and other means of food poisoning. Preservation also reduces food cost and extends shelf life.

When it comes to preserving foods, there are two methods: physical and chemical. Drying, refrigerating and freezing are examples of physical preservation. Chemical preservation involves adding ingredients to food in order to prevent oxidation, rancidity, bacterial growth, etc. Chemical preservation involves “additives.” Although there are preservatives that occur naturally, such as salt, sugar and lemon juice, big companies frequently use synthetic chemicals, making them artificial preservatives.

Antibacterial agents that destroy bacteria or prevent mold growth are:

  • Benzoates
  • Sorbates – including potassium sorbate, calcium sorbate and sodium sorbate
  • Propionates
  • Nitrites

    Antioxidants that inhibit oxidation:

  • Sulfites, including sodium sulfite, sodium bisulfite, sodium metabisulfite, potassium bisulfite and potassium metabisulfite.
  • Vitamin E (tocopherol)
  • Vitamin C (ascorbic acid)
  • Butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA) – a waxy solid used in the preservation of butter, lard, meats, etc.
  • Butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT) – the powder form of BHA

    Chelating agents that bind metal ions to prevent oxidation:

  • Disodium ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid (EDTA) – used in food processing
  • Polyphosphates – used in dips as well as peeled fruits and vegetables
  • Citric acid – naturally found in citrus fruits

While the FDA approves of these preservatives in moderate consumption, some are known to be more harmful than others. Sodium nitrite/nitrate is the preservative used in processed meats and may have cancer-causing effects, especially if consumed in high amounts. Sodium benzonate and artificial food colorings might heighten hyperactivity in children. BHT has been banned in some countries as a carcinogen.

All processed foods should be consumed in extreme moderation. It’s best to stick to foods that have been minimally processed for optimal health.

*Courtesy of Food and Nutrition Magazine