long as humans have been around, we have experimented with different ways of
keeping food fresh and safe to eat for as long as possible. In ancient times,
we relied on practices like drying, salting, pickling, and fermenting. Today,
we have a wide range of different types of preservatives that can be added as ingredients to food in order to prevent spoilage and prolong
in recent decades, the use of preservatives in the food industry has been the
subject of significant criticism and controversy. Although preservatives play a
vitally important role in maintaining food safety, some people are concerned
about the effect that overuse of preservatives—particularly artificial or
synthetic ones—can have on human health.
your opinion on the use of preservatives, we could all benefit from knowing
more about these additives. Read on for a look at five things you might not
know about food preservatives.
and artificial preservatives are more closely linked than you think.
many consumers, the controversy around preservatives boils down to a basic
binary: natural preservatives are good, artificial preservatives are bad. In
reality, the situation is not quite as simple as that. While natural
preservatives are derived from natural sources (for example, lemon juice, salt,
or sugar), and artificial preservatives are synthetically produced, the fact is
that many natural and artificial preservatives are chemically identical to each
other. In other words, several artificial preservatives are simply natural
preservatives that have been reproduced or recreated in a laboratory setting.
Even the US Food and Drug Administration, the entity responsible for regulating
and overseeing all food additives, doesn’t differentiate between natural and
artificial preservatives, referring to both simply as “chemical preservatives.”
preservatives fall into three major groups.
synthetically generated preservatives that are used in foods are divided into
three major categories depending on their type and function. These groups are:
help maintain food safety by destroying bacteria and preventing or restricting
the growth of mold on foods. Common antimicrobial agents include benzoates,
which are the salts of benzoic acid; sorbates, which comprise sorbic acid and
three mineral salts; and nitrites, which are the salts of nitrous acid.
Antioxidants—These preservatives inhibit oxidation,
which is essentially the process of food going bad after exposure to oxygen; an
easy-to-understand example of oxidation is fruit, such as apples, that browns
after it has been cut. Common antioxidants include sulfites, which are a group
of compounds made up of charged sulfur molecules and oxygen; vitamins E and C;
and the compounds butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA) and butylated hydroxytoluene
also help to prevent oxidation, but unlike antioxidants, they work by binding
metal ions in certain foods, which restricts the oxidation process. Common
chelating agents include polyphosphates, which are often used as anti-browning
agents in products such as washes for peeled fruits and vegetables; and citric
acid, which is found naturally in citrus fruits.
regulation of food preservatives was started in part because of a novel.
1906, the then little-known writer Upton Sinclair (who would later win the 1943
Pulitzer Prize for Fiction) published a novel called The Jungle. A
bestselling political exposé, the novel was based on the meatpacking industry
in Chicago. It shocked readers with its details about the unsafe conditions for
workers and unsanitary practices, including the use of unregulated substances,
that were common in the preparation of food for consumption. Public outcry
about the issue was so strong that it led to the creation of the Pure Food and
Drug Act, the FDA, and the Meat Inspection Act later that year.
preservatives, food waste would be an even bigger problem.
don’t just help keep food safe for us to eat. They also play a hugely important
role in reducing food waste. Today, even with preservatives as widely used as
they are, Americans throw out approximately 35 million tons of food every year,
according to estimates from the Environmental Protection Agency. If
preservatives were not used to help extend the shelf life of many of the foods
we eat, the already significant problem of food waste would be far more
producers are working to respond to consumer concerns about artificial
there is by no means a scientific or popular consensus when it comes to the
pros and cons of using artificial preservatives in food, today’s food producers
are already working to respond to consumer demands for products that contain
fewer synthetic preservatives. A growing number of companies are exploring a
wide range of natural preservatives that may in time come to replace many
commonly used artificial preservatives. In addition, food producers are
experimenting with new techniques—including flash freezing, hermetically sealed
packaging, and irradiation (or cold pasteurization)—that can help preserve food
without the need for extra ingredients or additives.