Natural food products are susceptible to decay and rot if left for too long after their peak ripeness. Preservatives, which are naturally occurring or synthetically produced substances, are added to food as a way of keeping them edible for a longer period of time.
When the FDA approves a preservative for use, it deems it Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS). Be aware that some preservatives may be dangerous or toxic. And yet foods with these questionable preservatives can still receive the GRAS approval if the total amount of preservative is less than what’s been established as dangerous.
Commonly Used Preservatives and What They Do
All of the following preservatives are GRAS, though in most cases questions have been raised around their safety and/or impact on our health.
Ascorbic acid (vitamin C): Stops foods from continuing to ripen; delays the decaying process.
- Commonly found in canned fruit, bottled juices and preserved fruit.
- No known safety issue.
Butylated hydroxanisole (BHA): Prevents oils in food from oxidizing and going rancid.
- Commonly found in butter, margarine, lard, shortening, vegetable oil, cereals and grain-based snack foods with processed oils.
- U.S. Department of Health and Human services reports BHA as being “reasonably anticipated as a human carcinogen.”
Butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT): Prevents oils in food from oxidizing and becoming rancid.
- Commonly found in packaged chips, cereal, cookies with processed oils and vegetable oils.
- The Center for Science in the Public Interest tags BHT as a preservative to consider with caution.
Potassium sorbate (202): Prevents mold growth on foods.
- Commonly found in cheese, dried meats, pickles and apple cider.
- GRAS, though large amounts may cause nausea/diarrhea.
Sodium benzoate (E211): Extends the shelf life of foods.
- Commonly found in sodas, fruit juices, fruit preserves and vinegar.
- When combined with vitamin C, may lead to the production of benzene, a cancer-causing substance.
Sodium nitrite: Prevents growth of bacteria that cause botulism and preserves the red color of meat.
- Commonly found in bacon, jerky, lunch meats, smoked salmon, home cured poultry or wild game.
- Possible carcinogen; may damage blood vessels, thereby increasing the risk of heart disease.
*Check out the FDA website, for a full list of food additives and preservatives.
What Kinds of Food Should I Eat?
Focus on fresh food where the need for preservatives isn’t necessary. Many foods that require preservatives tend to be more processed and have higher amounts of omega-6 fatty acids. Bear in mind that GRAS does not equal healthy, safe, nutritious or best choice.
Bottom line: Eat fresh foods at the peak of ripeness.