What Are the Dangers of Preservatives?

Preservatives are chemicals used to keep food fresh. Although there are a number of different types of food preservatives, antimicrobials, antioxidants, and products that slow the natural ripening process are some of the most common. Despite their important function, preservatives can pose a number of serious health risks.

Young boy holding a can of food (Image: Jupiterimages/Stockbyte/Getty Images)

Increased Risk of Cancer

Cancer is a serious side effect associated with the use of preservatives. In fact, the National Toxicology Program reports that propyl gallate -- a preservative commonly used to stabilize certain cosmetics and foods containing fat -- may cause tumors in the brain, thyroid and pancreas. Similarly, InChem -- an organization that provides peer-reviewed information on chemicals and contaminants -- notes that nitrosames, including nitrates and nitrites, can lead to the development of certain cancer-causing compounds as they interact with natural stomach acids. Nitrosamines are found in a variety of foods, including cured meat, beer and nonfat dried milk.

Hyperactivity in Children

Hyperactivity in children is another possible side effect associated with the use of preservatives. A study published in 2004 in "Archives of Disease in Childhood" noted a significant increase in hyperactive behavior in 3-year-olds who took benzoate preservatives. Children who were enrolled in the study also demonstrated a decrease in hyperactive behavior after they stopped taking benzoate preservatives. While benzoates can be found in a number of foods, they are often used to preserve acidic foods and beverages, like soda, pickles and fruit juice.

Reduced Heart Health

Some people may experience damage to their heart as a result of preservative use, reports InChem. Sodium nitrates can cause blood vessels to narrow and become stiffer. In addition, nitrates may affect the way the body processes sugar and may be to blame for the development of some types of diabetes, the Harvard School of Public Health notes.

Avoiding Preservatives

Cutting preservatives entirely from your diet may be difficult. However, reducing their intake as much as possible can be beneficial for those who want to avoid chronic health conditions. Incorporating fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean meats and low-fat dairy into your diet is an effective way to reduce preservative intake. Read the labels on packaged foods to identify sources of nitrates, benzoates, propyl gallates and other dangerous preservatives. For example, the University of Texas MD Anderson Center reports that cured or smoked foods -- which typically include preservatives -- will likely list nitrates or nitrites on the ingredient list.

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