Artificial preservatives can help your food last longer without becoming contaminated with food-borne illnesses, which is the reason they're found in so many different processed foods. Although all artificial preservatives used in the United States have been deemed "generally recognized as safe" by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, not all of these additives are 100-percent safe for everyone. Some preservatives are associated with adverse effects, which can involve an unpleasant reaction in people sensitive to a particular additive or a potential increased risk for cancer.
Artificial preservatives may act as antioxidants, make food more acidic, reduce the moisture level of food, slow down the ripening process and prevent the growth of microorganisms, all of which help the food last longer. This means you can make fewer trips to the store and have less food waste because the preservatives help minimize the amount of food you buy that goes bad before you can eat it.
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Limiting Foodborne Illnesses
Approximately one out of every six Americans get a foodborne illness each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Without artificial preservatives to limit the spread of the organisms that cause these illnesses, this number might be even higher. Some of these illnesses, such as botulism, can be deadly.
Potential Adverse Reactions
Certain preservatives, including sulfites and sodium benzoate, may cause adverse reactions in a small percentage of the population. Sulfites help limit the growth of bacteria in wine and the discoloration of dried fruit, but can cause potentially deadly allergic reactions in sensitive individuals, including rashes, low blood pressure, diarrhea, flushing, abdominal pain, asthmatic reactions and anaphylactic shock. Sodium benzoate, also called benzoic acid, is used in acidic foods to keep microorganisms from growing. In sensitive individuals, it can cause asthma, hives and other allergic reactions.
Increased Cancer Risk
Although sodium benzoate is usually considered safe for people who aren't sensitive to it, when combined with ascorbic acid in acidic foods it can produce benzene, which may slightly increase your risk for leukemia and other types of cancer, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest. Nitrates and nitrites, which are often used to preserve cured meats, such as lunch meat and hot dogs, may also increase your risk for certain types of cancers, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Some other preservatives have been linked to a potential increase in cancer risk, although so far the evidence for this is preliminary and conflicted. These include propyl gallate, butylated hydroxyanisole, or BHA, butylated hydroxytoluene, or BHT, and tert-butylhydroquinone, or TBHQ.
- Center for Science in the Public Interest: Chemical Cuisine
- U.S. Food and Drug Administration: Overview of Food Ingredients, Additives & Colors
- SunSentinel: Food Preservatives: How Much Is Too Much?
- Clinical and Experimental Allergy: Clinical Effects of Sulphite Additives
- U.S. Environmental Protection Agency: Nitrates and Nitrites
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Estimates of Foodborne Illness in the United States