The Most Common Food Preservatives

Food preservatives can be intimidating and have long, complex chemical names on food labels. Some preservatives have been accused of causing cancer. Surprisingly, most preservatives are naturally found in healthy food like fruits and vegetables. It's safer to eat preservatives than risk eating foods infected by bacteria and fungi.

Preservatives can be found in anything from bacon to red wine.
Credit: Andrii Pohranychnyi/iStock/GettyImages

What Preservatives Do

Walking through the aisles of your local grocery store, you can see that some foods look fresh, bright and healthy while others look brown and off-putting. Preservatives help fruit, vegetables and meat stay colorful and appetizing. The flavors of some foods are even enhanced from preservatives. They also prevent infections from bacteria, fungi and some viruses.

Safety of Food Preservatives

The Food and Drug Administration is in charge of testing and monitoring preservatives to make sure that they won't damage your body. Not only are preservatives regulated in human food, they're monitored in animal food as well. The majority of preservatives have been proven safe for consumption before they get to your plate.

While the names of some preservatives seem intimidating, they're usually compounds that you'd recognize or at least eat the foods they're found in. Don't let the long names fool you. The more you learn about preservatives the safer you'll feel.

Vitamin C as a Preservative

You'd probably recognize this preservative by its more common name: vitamin C. As an antioxidant, vitamin C helps your body by fighting off free radicals, which are roaming oxygen molecules that can cause damage to your cells. It's one of the most popular food additives because it helps you meet your daily vitamin C requirements.

Ascorbic acid can act as an antioxidant for your food by preventing browning and discoloration. It's commonly used in fruits, according to an article from Utah State University. If you want to make an at-home preservative solution for fruit, you can simply crush a vitamin C supplement and mix it with water.

Read more: Ascorbic Acid Vs. Vitamin C

Sodium Nitrite for Meat

While their names are incredibly similar, sodium nitrate and nitrite serve different purposes. Sodium nitrite is commonly found in cured meats, such as bacon. It's often used in deli meats to preserve the color of the meat. Beyond aesthetic purposes, sodium nitrite can actually keep you safe from a nasty bacteria called C. botulinum, which causes botulism, a disease that attacks your nerves.

According to an article from the North American Meat Institute, only about 5 percent of your daily intake of sodium nitrite comes from preservatives. It's commonly found in green, leafy vegetables. These vegetables contain nitrate, which is converted to nitrite by your saliva.

Antioxidant Sodium Nitrate

Sodium nitrate is used differently. It's actually a very good plant fertilizer, according to an article from the International Plant Nutrition Institute. It's helpful for plants because it delivers much-needed nitrogen into their soil. Sodium nitrate is also added to charcoal briquettes to make them easier to light.

While it's not used in cured meats, sodium nitrate is still found in poultry and other meats. It's an antioxidant which means it can help food retain its color longer, making it more appetizing.

Safety of Nitrates and Nitrites

Nitrates and nitrites are prime examples of preservatives that have been vilified. They've been accused of causing cancer, but that's probably not the case, according to an article from New Zealand Food Safety. While processed meats can be carcinogenic, there's no proof that nitrates and nitrites are the cause.

Disinfecting Sulphur Dioxide

Preservatives can be found in the most unusual places. Even wine has preservatives to keep it from spoiling and changing color. Sulphur dioxide is a benign preservative known for its lack of toxicity in mammals, but there are restrictions for how much you can use in food. According to an article from the Food Safety Authority of Ireland, dried fruits and breakfast sausages can contain up to 4 percent sulphur dioxide.

Sulphur dioxide acts as a disinfectant for foods, preventing microbes like bacteria, fungi and some viruses from invading food. As an antioxidant it helps foods maintain their color. While it's used in meats like fish and sausage, sulphur dioxide is used more in fruit, fruit juice, vegetables, syrups, wines and jams.

Benzoic Acid and Sodium Benzoate

Benzoic acid and sodium benzoate are grouped together because they can be interchangeable in some cases. Benzoic acid isn't very water soluble, according to an article from the World Health Organization, so sodium benzoate is often used instead. They're both safe to have in your diet, according to the Scientific Committee on Consumer Products.

Benefits of Benzoic Acid

Both preservatives are considered safe. Benzoic acid is naturally occurring in plants. There's a particularly high concentration in some berries. It's also found in some animals and their milk.

Benzoic acid is used as a preservative in some drinks, baked goods and condiments. It's also used in some toothpaste and mouthwash products, although the taste can be off-putting in high doses. As an antimicrobial, benzoic acid is not only useful in food but in cleaning your teeth and gums.

Read more: What Are Some Natural Preservatives?

Benefits of Sodium Benzoate

Sodium benzoate is more water soluble than benzoic acid, making it the preferred preservative for beverages like soft drinks. It's also used in pickle and fruit juice. It acts as a microbial to kill germs and retain the flavor of food.

According to the U.S. food and Drug Administration (FDA), products can contain up to 0.1 percent sodium benzoate and still be safe for consumption. You can consume up to 60 grams without side effects, according to an article from Toxnet. However, there may be a link between over consumption of sodium benzoate and ADHD.

Antimicrobial Sorbic Acid

When used as a preservative, sorbic acid is man-made. However, it occurs naturally in fruits, particularly berries. It's used as a preservative in wine, food and even animal feed. Sorbic acid is antimicrobial, but it only works against select bacteria.

The most effective use for sorbic acid is preventing the growth of yeast and fungi. It's also used in dairy products like cheese, according to an article from the FDA, to prevent the spread of mold. Potassium sorbate is a chemical related to sorbic acid which can often be used to do the same job.

Citrus and Citric Acid

Naturally occurring in citrus fruits, citric acid is a widely used preservative that can actually enhance the flavor of some foods. Fruit products like fruit juice, butter and jams use citric acid to retain flavor. It also controls the pH of gel-like substances like jelly so that they don't change states.

Some sodas and other carbonated beverages contain citric acid to give the beverage a tangy taste. Other liquids like pickle juice use citric acid to retain an acidic taste. Citric acid is particularly useful in liquids because it's very water soluble.

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