Food preservation is an age-old practice designed to keep our food safe and storable. Evolving from salt and sugar, food preservatives now include many other chemical forms. Whether they are natural or artificial, food preservatives must be listed on the ingredient label, and must meet the Food and Drug Administration standard of ‘Generally Recognized as Safe,’ or GRAS.
There is some criticism regarding the thoroughness of FDA’s GRAS status process. Because of this, the Center for Science in the Public Interest provides a shopping guide for food additives and preservatives found at https://cspinet.org/eating-healthy/chemical-cuisine.
Artificial preservatives can be divided into three major groups:
1. Antimicrobial agents (destroy bacteria and inhibit mold growth) — This includes sodium benzoate, a preservative that may exacerbate hyperactivity in some children, according to a study review published in 2007 Lancet. This category also includes sodium nitrates/nitrites used to preserve meats that are somewhat controversial as they can form nitrosamines when added to meats. Nitrosamines in large amounts are linked to increased risk of colorectal cancer. Less controversial antimicrobial agents include calcium propionate and potassium sorbate.
2. Antioxidants (inhibit oxidation) — This includes vitamin C (ascorbic acid) and its salts — sodium ascorbate, calcium ascorbate and potassium ascorbate. Of the artificial antioxidant preservatives, one of the most controversial is butylated hydroxytoulene, or BHT. BHT is banned in some countries, but has not conclusively shown to be a carcinogen in the United States.
3. Chelating agents (to bind metal ions, preventing oxidation) — This includes disodium ehtylenediaminetetraacetic acid (EDTA), used to bind manganese, cobalt, iron or copper ions. It also includes citric acid, found naturally in fruits.
A diet high in processed foods may contain excessive preservatives — both artificial and natural — and should be limited. However, there is a place for preservatives within a healthy diet.
“Removing preservatives compromises food safety, and there is no good scientific evidence to avoid them,” says Robert Brackett, PhD, director of the Institute for Food Safety and Health. Using nitrites as an example, he says, “The risk of getting botulism from processed meats far outweighs the risk of the preservative, especially when consumed in moderation.”
Looking at the future, new technologies replacing traditional preservatives are on the horizon. These techniques include high-pressure processing and ultrasonic preprocessing with pulsed light and may have additional benefits such as reduced water usage, energy efficiency and improved food quality.
Georgia Boley MS,RD,CFSPP, is the owner of Tailored Nutrition LLC.