Medically reviewed by Shahzadi Devje, Registered Dietitian (RD) & Certified Diabetes Educator (CDE)
How healthy are food preservatives anyway? I dish the goods on a few key players to help you better understand the ingredients in your food.
A food preservative is a substance added to foods to make them last longer; to "preserve" them. Preservatives are added to foods to slow spoilage, and have found themselves in all kinds of products in our grocery stores.
Preservatives work to preserve food in a few different ways. Some prevent the growth of bacteria and mold. Others prevent delicate fats from going rancid.
There are so many preservatives out there. While preservatives added to foods should be “approved,” this doesn’t mean they’re guaranteed to be safe for everyone always. And it doesn’t mean that the food is healthy.
Generally speaking, foods with preservatives are more-processed are less-nutritious. So, even if you don’t mind preservatives, you probably should cut down on these kinds of foods, anyway.
So, let’s learn more about a few common food preservatives.
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 today’s 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. According to Health Canada, the average Canadian eats an estimated 2760 mg of sodium, which is higher than the established goal of 2300 milligrams (mg) 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.
Nitrites (nitrates and nitrosamines)
Nitrites are preservatives added to processed meats. 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.”
According to the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), an agency of the World Health Organization, processed meat is classified as a carcinogen (something capable of causing cancer). And it has classified red meat as a probable carcinogen (something that probably causes 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.”How healthy are food #preservatives anyway? Discover a few key players to help you better understand the ingredients in your #food. #dietitian Click To Tweet
BHA & BHT
Have you seen on packages “BHA/BHT has been added to the package to help maintain freshness?” Perhaps on cereal packages or in gum? Guess how these compounds maintain freshness? Because they’re preservatives. In fact, you can find BHA and BHT in potato chips, some cereal, frozen sausages, enriched rice, lard, shortening, candy, jello to name a few.
BHA (butylated hydroxyanisole) and BHT (butylated hydroxytoluene) 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. However, 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.
Ascobric acid, aka vitamin C, is present naturally in fruits and vegetables. You may have heard about its powerful antioxidant properties; fighting free radicals (molecules that are produced when the body processes foods or is exposed to cigarette smoke or pollution), to keep you healthy. It’s a Health Canada approved preservative, and found all over the grocery store. Typically, ascorbic acid is used to help prevent food spoilage in a wide range of products from canned fish, fruit to beer and wine. You can find the full list of Health Canada approved preservatives here. Heads up: It’s slightly overwhelming!
There are a lot of preservatives in our food supply. These compounds work by preventing the growth of bacteria and mold, or by preventing fats from going rancid. And they're mostly found in processed foods. If you want to avoid them - eat fresh foods.
For those of you looking for a definitive answer about the safety of food preservatives, I'm afraid I don’t have one. Nutritional science is complicated and proving something with 100% confidence is not possible. However, what I would say is, if it does not cause harm, based on current research and expert consensus - that does not mean automatic safety. What we do know is that artificial food preservatives are labelled as “Generally Recognized As Safe”.
Always shop for products that contain ingredients that you understand. You can't go wrong with wholesome ingredients that are as close to nature as possible.
Does this information make you want to read all your food ingredient labels now? What questions do you have about food preservatives? Let me know in the comments below.
Recipe (preservative-free): Homemade Granola
Shahzadi is an award-winning registered dietitian (RD) regulated by the College of Dietitians of Ontario and certified diabetes educator (CDE), approved by the Canadian Diabetes Educator Certification Board. A YouTuber and notorious foodie, she's dedicated to helping you end your cooking wars, transform your health, and be the best version of yourself! Shahzadi is an on-air nutrition expert for CTV Your Morning and a regular contributor for Global News and other national media outlets.