As 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 shelf life.
However, 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.
Whatever 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.
Natural and artificial preservatives are more closely linked than you think.
For 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.”
Artificial preservatives fall into three major groups.
The synthetically generated preservatives that are used in foods are divided into three major categories depending on their type and function. These groups are:
Antimicrobial agents—These preservatives 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 (BHT).
Chelating agents—These preservatives 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.
The regulation of food preservatives was started in part because of a novel.
In 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.
Without preservatives, food waste would be an even bigger problem.
Preservatives 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 serious.
Food producers are working to respond to consumer concerns about artificial preservatives.
Although 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.