Food Preservatives – Friend Or Foe


Throughout history, human beings have used preservation methods to keep food fresh and tasty and to prevent spoilage. While our ancestors used natural preservatives such as salt, sugar, citrus juice, and vinegar to prevent bacterial or mold growth in their foods, today, with advancements in science and technology, artificial food preservatives have become the norm.

This increasing use of food preservatives, however, especially artificial ones, has raised several concerns across the world regarding their long-term impact on our health.

In this article, we will delve into how food preservatives work and their various benefits and ill effects to help you make informed choices.


How Food Preservatives Work

Food preservatives are crucial for inhibiting the growth of mold, bacteria, fungi, and yeast, thus helping delay food contamination. They not only help retain food quality and curb contamination but also prevent foodborne illnesses.

Food preservatives can be classified into three types based on their interaction with food. Here’s a brief overview of different types of food preservatives and how they work to prolong the shelf life of your food.


Antimicrobials stop or slow the growth of bacteria, yeasts, and molds and prevent microbial contamination of food. Benzoates, sorbates, sulfites, sulfur dioxide, nitrites, and nitrates are some of the common antimicrobial preservatives.


Antioxidants prevent rancidity by slowing down the oxidation or chemical breakdown of unsaturated fatty acids in fats and oils. They also prevent discoloration in freshly cut fruits and vegetables. Vitamin C, for example, is a naturally occurring antioxidant that works as a preservative.

Some common antioxidants used as food preservatives include butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA), butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT), and propyl gallate.

Anti-enzymatic Preservatives

Anti-enzymatic preservatives are the third group of food preservatives that help fight enzymes in food. Enzymes cause fruits and vegetables to continue to ripen even after harvest. Certain enzymes also cause cut or peeled potatoes and apples to become brown.

Anti-enzymatic preservatives attack the enzymes by reducing the pH level in food to uncomfortably low levels for the enzyme to grow. This curbs the enzymatic processes and prevents ripening after harvest.

Some of the popular anti-enzymatic preservatives that you will usually find in your food include acids like ascorbic acid (vitamin C) and citric acid.


Are Food Preservatives Bad For You?

Although food preservatives work to arrest microbial growth and spoilage,

not all preservatives are good for your health and wellbeing. But, not all of them are bad either.

Natural preservatives such as salt, sugar, and extracts of clove, basil, neem, and rosemary will not harm your health if consumed in moderate amounts. They do not contain synthetic ingredients and their chemical composition is not altered, making them safe as food additives.

These preservatives are commonly used in cured meats, sauerkraut, pickles, jams, jellies, preserves, fruit cocktails, and a host of other foods.

On the other hand, a number of foods that do contain natural preservatives usually use these preservatives in large amounts for them to be effective. This can negatively impact your health, so such foods should be consumed moderately.

But it is mainly the artificial or chemical preservatives that you must be wary of. While artificial preservatives help slow food contamination, they are also the leading cause of many health issues. These artificially produced preservatives are synthetic in nature and have an altered chemical composition, which can impact your health in various ways.

It is important to note here that food preservatives can impact different people differently depending on various factors like their age, overall constitution, and other health concerns. Nonetheless, it would be best to consider their various ill effects when you eat processed foods such as junk food or canned food.


Can Food Preservatives Make You Sick?

Most store-bought food items today contain artificial preservatives, many of which are toxic and can be harmful to our health. Some food preservatives may also have potentially life-threatening side effects.

Studies have found that using artificial preservatives such as BHT, BHA, benzoates, nitrates, sulfites, sorbates, parabens, and formaldehyde can result in a number of health problems. Some of the common health hazards linked with food preservatives include the following:

  •       Hypersensitivity
  •       Allergy
  •       Asthma
  •       Hyperactivity
  •       Brain damage
  •       Heart diseases
  •       Cancer

Researchers have found that sulfites that are used as food preservatives in fermented beverages can cause mild to severe and even fatal reactions in 3 to 10% of people suffering from asthma. Sulfite ingestion is also known to cause other reactions such as gastrointestinal problems, anaphylaxis, and dermatological eruptions.

It is thus important to avoid or at least minimize consuming foods that contain artificial preservatives. At the same time, foods with natural preservatives, too, should be had in moderation to avoid any potential ill effects.

It also helps to remember this key rule to avoid ingesting artificial preservatives: If you can’t pronounce it, don’t eat it.

Ensure you read the food labels carefully, and if you see more than half of the ingredient list filled with artificial flavors, sweeteners, and preservatives, avoid the product altogether. It’s always better to be safe than sorry.


Are Food Preservatives Necessary?

Preservatives are necessary to prolong the shelf life of the food we eat and prevent spoilage. This is particularly important as most of the food that we get is sourced from around the world. This means that by the time your food reaches your plate, it has traveled through miles for several hours, which can lead to microbial contamination.

Even the fruits and vegetables that we eat are not free from preservatives. That is why it’s important to wash them carefully with water, and a natural cleaner if needed, to remove any preservative remnants from the produce.

Another way to reduce the ingestion of food preservatives is to reduce how much foods heavily loaded with preservatives, especially artificial ones, are consumed. Pay attention to what you eat and avoid eating junk food as much as possible.



Food preservatives are practically unavoidable. They are present in nearly every food we consume. And while one or two preservatives may be perfectly safe for you, given the long list of additives and preservatives added to various processed foods, there is simply not enough information on how these preservatives will impact our health in the long run.

Keep your diet safer by consuming locally grown produce and limiting your consumption of processed food. Make sure you read the labels and have a general understanding of different additives, so you can make better, healthier choices.