Food Preservatives And What You Should Know About Them | Ecobuy
Food Preservatives And What You Should Know About Them

Food preservatives have been in use by humans for thousands of years to extend the life of food. Without these processes, times of food scarcity – such as winter and times of famine – would result in widespread death. Food preservatives have meant the difference between life and death throughout history.

However, modern-day food preservation processes might be doing more harm than good. While ancient food preservation was used to ensure health and longevity, modern food preservation is more concerned with maximising profit than with the health of consumers.

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Food Preservation: A History

Jars of pickled vegetables

Many traditional techniques of food preservation stretch back thousands of years. It has been suggested, for instance, that Middle Eastern cultures dried foods for preservation as early as 12,000 BCE, using the heat of the sun. In colder areas of the world, snow and ice were used to freeze foods – a technique that we still use in the form of the humble household refrigerator. Curing, pickling, and fermenting were also used everywhere from Ancient Greece and Rome to Korea.

In these ancient cultures, the purpose of food preservation was to ensure that food could be used at a later date. Food harvested during the summer, for example, would not last until the winter without some form of preservation.

These processes helped ensure an availability of food that would not have been possible otherwise; allowing communities to continue eating when fresh food was scarce.

As history progressed, preservation techniques became more sophisticated with the invention of electricity and subsequently the refrigerator. Mechanical refrigeration and ‘quick freezing’ processes quickly became popular in the 1800s with the Industrial Revolution.

Canning also became a popular method of food preservation in the 1800s as the application of heat and vacuum sealing prevents spoilage and contamination of food.

Modern Preservation

In the ancient (and not-so ancient) past, food preservation often meant the difference between life and death, however modern food preservation is not quite so straight forward.

Preservatives are added to food to prevent or slow spoilage, prevent contamination and changes in colour or taste, and to maintain freshness.

There are many benefits to modern day preservatives in food. Preservatives such as benzoic acid, calcium sorbate and potassium nitrate help keep food affordable by reducing food waste and ensuring that it can survive long journeys from farm or factory to supermarket to your home.

Preservatives also increase food safety by preventing bacteria from contaminating your favourite foods.

In the past, it was possible to contract any number of deadly diseases from common food items, such as tuberculosis in milk. However, with the use of preservation processes, such as pasteurisation, it is now very unlikely that you will contract such illnesses from your food.

These modern preservation processes have also made food more widely available to consumers. Ancient cultures were reliant on the food immediately available to them. Ancient Scandinavians, for instance, ate wild apples and raspberries, beef, and lamb. Foods such as tomatoes, potatoes, and corn were unknown to these people. Now, of course, if you were to walk into an Oslo supermarket, you will find all these foods.

Preservatives are also, of course, used in processed foods like ice cream, bread, bacon, and pastries. In these instances, too, the purpose of preservation is to extend the shelf-life of foods to make them affordable and accessible.

But could these preservatives be having a negative impact on your health?

Chemical Preservatives

Chemicals in a laboratory environment

While many ancient preservation techniques remain in use today (for example, canning, curing, drying, fermenting), these and other foods also often have chemical preservatives added to extend shelf-life.

Beef jerky, for example, uses a traditional preservation process (curing and drying) but will also often include chemical preservatives, such as sodium nitrate.

There are several types of chemical preservatives that are most used in foods. Each type is commonly used for particular types of foods – nitrites and nitrates, for example, are used in meat products such as the sodium nitrate used in beef jerky.

Infographic detailing different kinds of food preservatives

Potential Health Impacts

All food preservatives and additives go through extensive testing before being allowed into our foods. Yet there is increasing evidence that excessive, prolonged consumption of ultra-processed foods can have severe negative impacts on short and long-term health.

Numerous scientific studies have been conducted (and are continuing to be conducted) to determine the effects of various chemical preservatives on our health. So far, the outcomes have been far from conclusive.

A diet consisting of high-fat, high-sugar foods (including most processed foods) can lead to negative health outcomes. These may include obesity, diabetes, heart disease, high cholesterol levels and high blood pressure. However, there is very little evidence that directly links preservatives with these negative health outcomes.

What is concerning to many scientists is that there is also very little evidence regarding how different preservatives interact with each other.

Many food items contain a combination of two or more preservatives that may, individually, be safe for consumption but together may be harmful.

We need to consider the many different foods containing different preservatives and how they may interact. While individual preservatives may be fine alone, they may interact poorly with other preservatives.

Are Preservatives Bad for You?

The jury is still out on whether chemical preservatives are directly harmful to our health. Some say they are, and some say they are not.

What is certain is that a diet consisting primarily of ultra-processed foods is harmful to health. Ultra-processed foods can lead to a variety of different health concerns including diabetes and heart disease. Foods such as highly processed meats, carbonated drinks, sweets, potato chips, ice cream and fast food are often high in fat, sugar, and salt, as well as preservatives.

Biologists, nutritionists, and doctors all recommend a diet that generally avoids these kinds of foods whilst including many whole foods, such as fruits and vegetables, beans and legumes, whole grains, lean meats, and fish.

A variety of whole foods - free from preservatives

There is a lot of health benefits to eating whole foods. Whole are foods without the ‘extras’ such as preservatives, added salt and sugar, and other additives.

Whole foods are a more natural way of consuming our necessary vitamins and minerals. Macro-nutrients – fat, protein and carbohydrates – are also plentiful in whole foods. Fruits and vegetables in their natural state are also a fantastic source of dietary fibre unlike processed foods.

If you’re looking to switch to a more whole food-focused manner of eating, you can look to the so-called ‘Blue Zones’ such as Okinawa, Japan and Sardinia, Italy.

These zones are widely considered to have the healthiest, and longest living populations, in the world. These communities mostly eat whole foods with very few processed foods.

With low levels of preservatives in their diets, these Blue Zones may serve as inspiration for your own diet.

The preservation processes that are used in these communities are often similar to traditional processes such as fermenting.

Many scientists are still unsure how harmful preservatives may be. But it is clear that to achieve the best health impacts, a diet consisting primarily of whole foods is crucial.

Minimising consumption of food preservatives and processed foods can only have positive impacts on our health.


What are examples of preservatives?

Salt, nitrites, nitrates and nitrosamines, BHA and BHT, sulfites, sodium benzoate, potassium benzoate and benzene are some preservatives that you should look out for on food packaging.

Are preservatives bad for you?

Some artificial preservatives, such as nitrites or nitrates used in processed meats, have been shown to be bad for our health. Researchers have reported that artificial preservatives such as nitrates, benzoates, sulfites, sorbates, parabens, formaldehyde, BHT, BHA and several others can cause serious health hazards such as hypersensitivity, allergy, asthma, hyperactivity, neurological damage and cancer.