Preservatives 101: What You Need to Know
Preservatives are everywhere. They’ve become a seemingly essential part of keeping food products safe to eat and shelf-stable.
Even long before the use of natural and synthetic chemicals, humans used preservation techniques to extend the life of the food they eat.
In recent years, the safety of some preservatives has been called into question. Nitrates, for example, were added to the World Health Organization’s list of known carcinogens in 2015.
Therefore, it makes sense that many consumers want to understand the preservatives in their food better. This article will provide an overview of everything you need to know about preservatives.
What are preservatives?
Preservatives are ingredients added to food to make them last longer. There are organic preservatives found in nature and synthetic preservatives that are human-made.
Our world (and food) is filled with microbes.
While we coexist happily with most of the microscopic world, the microbes that can grow in our food have the ability to make us sick.
Microbes, such as bacteria, mould, fungus, and yeast, can cause our food to spoil and go bad. If consumed, it can do serious harm.
Food is also affected by oxidation, which is when chemical changes impact a food’s safety and flavour.
Colours can change, and fats can become rancid. Sometimes, this simply makes food unpalatable (like a cut apple that turns brown), but other times, it means the food is no longer safe to eat.
Preservatives are used to delay (or prevent) spoilage and oxidation.
Consequently, foods with preservatives added to them or have undergone preservation techniques have a longer shelf life.
Some foods, like meat, seafood, dairy, and cheese, are considered at high-risk of spoiling. Therefore, food products within these categories are more likely to require preservatives to stay safe for consumption.
History of Preservation Techniques
Humans have been preserving food for thousands of years! Preservation has long been an essential technique for safely storing food.
However, modern technology has changed how we preserve food.
Historically, humans have preserved food by fermenting, pickling, curing, freezing, or canning. Fermentation is an example of chemical preservation, which is used in producing things like yogurt, sauerkraut, and kimchi.
On the other hand, physical preservation uses techniques like salt curing, smoking, drying, or refrigeration. This is how you get dried and smoked meats.
While all of these preservation methods are still in use, it’s now common practice to add small amounts of natural or artificial chemicals to food products to delay spoilage.
Common Natural Preservatives
- Ascorbic acid (Vitamin C): Commonly used in bread products.
- Citric acid: Flavour enhancer for jams and juices.
- Tocopherols (Vitamin E): Commonly used to prevent browning. Occurs naturally in nuts and seeds.
- Other Natural Preservatives widely used, depending on the application, are Green Tea Extract, Acerola, Rosemary Extract and Red Grape Skin Powder
Common Synthetic Preservatives
- Benzoic acid and sodium benzoat: Benzoic acid naturally occurs in some fruits but is now manufactured to limit microbial growth.
Sodium benzoate serves the same function; only it is water-soluble. Sodium benzoate also contains the carcinogen benzene.
- BHT and BHA: These are antioxidants that are used in cereals and beverages. They are also used to keep fats and oil from spoiling
- Calcium phosphate: This is a food thickener and stabilizer. It also prevents clumps in baked goods.
- EDTA: This prevents oxidation in canned foods, sauces, and carbonated beverages.
- Nitrates and nitrites: These add colour and extend shelf life in meats. However, they are carcinogenic in large quantities.
- Sulfites: Sulfites prevent browning and rotting. They are commonly found in fruit juices and wine.
- Sorbic acid: This naturally occurs in berries but is now manufactured to preserve wine, cheese, and meats.
Are preservatives safe?
Testing preservations for safety is an ongoing process. All preservatives currently used in food products have been deemed safe at their current levels.
That being said, many food preservatives (and other additives) can be harmful to people with allergies or if they are consumed in too high quantities.
Some synthetic preservatives contain known carcinogens, which are understood to cause cancer in high amounts or temperatures. Nitrates are an example.
It is important to remember that the purpose of preservatives is to make food safer to eat.
Microbial growth in our food products poses a serious health hazard. Preservations aim to limit the proliferation of these harmful microbes, thus delaying spoilage and mould growth.
Are preservatives healthy?
Different preservation methods have different impacts on our health.
Natural methods of preserving food may have been around for thousands of years, but that does not mean they are necessarily the healthiest option.
For example, curing meats requires a massive amount of salt. The average serving of beef jerky has 470 mg of sodium, which is 20% of your daily recommendation.
Additionally, people have canned fruits for generations to preserve them, yet this process uses high amounts of sugar. This means products like jams have high sugar content.
Frozen dinners—although a more recent invention compared to curing meat—also have excessively high sodium content.
High amounts of both salt and sugar are associated with poor health. In fact, most North Americans already get too much sugar and salt in their diets. Large sugar consumption is associated with obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.
On the other hand, high salt intake can lead to cardiovascular disease, chronic kidney disease, and stomach cancer.
Thus, given the need to watch our salt and sugar consumption, some consumers may opt to limit their intake of food that has been preserved using large amounts of sugar and salt.
Artificial preservatives have been deemed safe for consumption at low levels, but are they healthy? The major concern is that these synthetic preservatives tend to appear in processed, pre-packaged foods.
These food products are likely to have high sugar and salt content. Therefore, while the synthetic preservatives may be fine for your health, the food they’re in isn’t.
To Preserve or Not to Preserve
Undeniably, preservatives play a huge role in food research and development. They’re responsible for keeping food shelf-stable and safe to eat for longer times.
While all-natural and synthetic preservatives have been deemed safe to consume at low levels, some do contain carcinogens.
These can cause health issues at high levels or if cooked at high temperatures (like nitrates).
Traditional preservation techniques have their own advantages and shortcomings.
Although some of these methods have a rich history, they often use high amounts of sugar and salt, which also pose a threat to our health
Choosing the right preservatives for your new food product can be complicated. Fortunately, Hela Spice is here to help. We are the premier food product development company in Canada and the United States.
Our expert team can guide you through making the right preservative choices for your food product, or help you limit the use of preservatives.
Have a product idea? Tell us all about it and your search for the perfect ingredients. Find it all at Hela Spice. Let’s talk about your next best-seller.