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What are the common food preservatives and should we avoid them?

I love the saying I use and that is: "There is food and then there is junk!"...

Generally speaking when we think of the junk it is worth remembering there are about 400 food additives approved for use in Australia, and a fair few of them are preservatives.

Listed on food labels by either their name or their code number, food preservatives fall in the 200 range.

The more processed foods you eat, the more preservatives you’ll eat, too.

A food preservative is a substance added to foods to make them last longer; to “preserve” them. Preservatives are added to foods that go bad quickly and have found themselves in all kinds of products in our grocery stores.

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. Preservatives work to preserve food in a few different ways. Some prevent the growth of bacteria and mould. Others prevent delicate fats from going rancid.

There are so many preservatives out there. While preservatives added to foods should be “approved” by Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ), this doesn’t mean they’re guaranteed to be safe for everyone always. And it doesn’t mean that the food is healthy.

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.

Foods with preservatives are more-processed, less-nutritious foods to begin with – not exactly health foods. So, even if you don’t mind preservatives, you probably should cut down on these kinds of foods, anyway.

The 5 most common food preservatives.

1. Salt.

That’s right – salt.

FUN FACT: The term “salary” is from the Latin word for salt. It’s thought that it came from the ancient Romans who would pay employees, allowing them to buy salt. Either that, or it was for their work conquering and/or guarding salt mines/roads. Either way, salt was sought because of its ability to preserve food before the advent of refrigeration.

In this day and age, with fridges and freezers in every home and grocery store, and refrigerated trucks, salt is not needed for food preservation as much. But our taste buds still seem to crave it on an epic scale. The average Australian eats around 10 grams of salt per day, well over the recommended 1600 mg of sodium (equivalent to about 4 grams of salt) per day. Much of that is because it’s found in processed foods.

According to Harvard Health:

“… reducing dietary salt (table salt that is only sodium, chloride and iodine) will lower blood pressure, reduce the risk of heart attack and stroke, and save lives.”

So, salt is one of those all-too-common food preservatives that most of us will do better with less of.

2. Nitrites (nitrates and nitrosamines).

Nitrites are preservatives added to processed meats (sodium nitrite 250 and sodium nitrate 251). They’re not bad in and of themselves, but they do turn into harmful chemicals called nitrosamines. Nitrosamines are carcinogens found in cigarette smoke. Nitrites form nitrosamines when they’re cooked at high heat, and sometimes even when exposed to the high acid environment of the stomach.

Nitrites are added to meats to keep the pink-red colour and prevent “browning.” Mostly in bacon, ham, sausages and lunch meats. Since nitrites can change into nitrosamines, nitrites are one-step away from being the “bad guys.”

Another interesting thing is that processed meats have been linked with colon cancer. Because of the nitrites? Perhaps, but either way, nitrosamines are a confirmed health-buster.

Since nitrosamines (from nitrites) are the bad guys and are formed by cooking nitrites at high heat, what are nitrates?

Nitrates are naturally found in many healthy foods like vegetables. They’re especially high in beets. Sometimes our enzymes or gut bacteria change these healthy nitrates into nitrites. However, they rarely form nitrosamines because they’re two steps away from becoming these “bad guys.”

3. BHA & BHT.

Butylated Hydroxyanisole 320 (BHA) and Butylated Hydroxytoluene 321 (BHT) are antioxidants added to many processed foods. The main way BHA and BHT work is by preventing fats from going rancid. Are they safe? Well, they’re approved for use as a preservative at small doses and are typically found in margarine and spreads, salad dressings and instant mashed potato.

They are listed as “possibly carcinogenic to humans” by WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer as some studies show they can cause cancer in animals at high doses. Again, they’re added to processed pre-packaged foods, so it’s wise to avoid them nonetheless.

Want more detailed additive info?

Additive Alert by Julie Eady is a fabulous resource.

Click here to grab a copy (affiliate link).

4. Sulfites.

Preservatives that contain sulfur (220-228), including sulfur dioxide (220) are commonly found in dried fruit, wine, sausages and cordial and can trigger allergy-type symptoms and asthma attacks.

Food Standards Australia and New Zealand state that there is “a potential for exceedance of the acceptable daily intake (ADI) for sulfites in some children who were high consumers of certain foods.” They have also identified some uncertainties about the current ADI and have acknowledged that further evaluation of acceptable levels is required.

5. Sodium Benzoate, Potassium Benzoate and Benzene.

Benzene is a common industrial chemical used in manufacturing and is also found in crude oil, petrol and cigarette smoke. It is a known carcinogen and is not added to foods. However, in non-alcoholic drinks like soft drinks, the combination of preservatives sodium benzoate (211) or potassium benzoate (212) and ascorbic acid (vitamin C) can result in the formation of benzene. Exposure to heat or light during transport or storage can also increase the amount of benzene formed.

In 2006, independent testing in the United States of non-alcoholic beverages found very high levels of benzene and since that time causes and solutions were explored to reduce levels.

The International Council of Beverages Associations (ICBA) developed a guidance document to reduce benzene formation and it was made available to all Australian beverage manufacturers. The Australian Beverages Council Limited (Beverages Council) requires that their members take steps to reduce the formation of benzene in their products.

Exposure to benzene in drink products may be small when compared to exposure through pollution or smoke, but it’s unnecessary. So it makes sense to avoid drinks that contain benzoates and ascorbic acid.

The take-home message

There are a lot of preservatives in our food supply. These compounds work by preventing the growth of bacteria and mould, or by preventing fats from going rancid. And they’re mostly found in processed foods. All processed foods should be consumed in extreme moderation. It’s best to stick to foods that have been minimally processed for optimal health. If you want to avoid them. Eat fresh foods.

In good health,

Suzzi Hartery

BHSc Naturopath (Distinction) The Feel Good Society Founder & Head Practitioner


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