As the world changes, so does the food system. Food processing is prevalent globally. And in a bid to get food to as many people as possible while retaining its quality, manufacturers have no choice but to use preservatives.

What Is Food Preservation?

Since the pre-historic period, people have always preserved food, albeit using natural methods. The practice is meant to enhance food security. It allows for stocking up on food without it going bad.

Food preservation takes two forms:

  • Physical
  • Chemical

Physical preservation uses processes like drying, canning, and refrigeration. These methods hinder the development of microorganisms that cause rotting.

Chemical preservation, on the other hand, involves the addition of chemical substances to the food. Previously it involved basic chemistry and simple chemicals like fermentation, where barley grains left in the rain, turned to beer. The processes evolved to pickling where food is stored in containers with vinegar. Then curing came about, which is the dehydration of food using salts. Numerous discoveries concerning the use of salts as preservatives have been made since then.

What Are Food Preservatives?

Food preservatives are substances added to foods and beverages to prevent decomposition through the growth of microbial. Food preservatives fall into various groups depending on how they work.

These groups include:


Oxidation is a real menace when it comes to keeping food fresh. For example, oxidation causes raw apples to go brown. Of utmost concern is the oxidation of unsaturated fats. It turns them rancid. Antioxidants work to prevent the oxidation process. Some of the antioxidant preservatives added to food are ascorbic acid, butylated hydroxyanisole, and propyl gallate.

Antimicrobial Preservatives

They prevent the decomposition of food by hindering the growth of fungi and bacteria. They include nitrates, sorbates, benzoates, acetates, lactates, etc.

How Do These Preservatives Affect You?

Owing to the cost of using the naturally occurring preservatives, food processors usually result in the use of artificial preservatives. Unfortunately, some of these preservatives pose both short and long-term health risks to consumers and we are mainly unaware of this.

For the majority of governments, especially in developing countries, the enforcement of laws on food safety is limited. In most developed countries the Food and Drug Administration is responsible for ensuring the food is safe for human consumption. However, it is not required to assess preservatives that are considered ‘safe.' It thus leaves consumers at the mercy of the producers.

Most preservatives are safe for use. But there are some whose potential to cause cancer, aggravate allergies, and other complications have recently come to light.

These preservatives are:

BHA (Butylated Hydroxyanisole):

Reports and studies point to the additive being carcinogenic.

Sodium Nitrate and Sodium Nitrite:

These are preservatives used in processed meat, non-fat powdered milk, beer, etc. They have a close link with high risks of cancer on the consumers. There is also an association between them and an increased risk of contracting heart diseases.


Sulfites are relatively safe for use by the majority of people. However, in some, they have the potential to aggravate serious allergies.

Sodium Benzoate:

Sodium Benzoate is a preservative in soft drinks, jellies, jams, and margarine. It is responsible for keeping them fresh and retaining the taste for long periods of time. It is relatively harmless to most but has been reported to cause allergies to others. Studies have also shown diets with benzoates cause hyperactivity in children.

Propyl Gallate:

It is used to enhance stability in foods that contain fats. Certain reports have indicated that Propyl Gallate can cause tumors of the thyroid, brain, and even the pancreas.

The Verdict

The risks of high preservative diets are clear from allergies to cancers to diabetes. It is in processed foods that these preservatives rule supreme. Some people ingest so many additives in diets that it's only a matter of time before the complications emerge.

The only way out is to have less of the processed foods in our diets. Eat more fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and low-fat dairy products. Also, pay close attention to the labels at the back of food packs. Look for signs of benzoates, nitrates, propyl gallate, and sulfites among other harmful preservatives. Consider purchasing foods without these additives.

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