Let’s just admit it: We’ve all popped a few chips or cookies into our mouths without taking a good look at what exactly we’re putting in our bodies. When I finally took a peek at the nutrition label on the back of my afternoon snack, I was astonished to see I couldn’t even pronounce half if the ingredients listed! From aspartame to sulfur dioxide, it’s good to know what preservatives we are ingesting, and what they mean for our bodies.
HYDO-WHAT? — THE NEED-TO-KNOW
Just so we’re all on the same page, preservatives are a type of food additive added to food to prolong shelf life and keep the products from being broken down by microorganisms (yummy). Mold, bacteria, and yeast can cause food spoilage and are found practically everywhere (including the air we breathe). And these modern additions have certainly made an impact. In fact, some researchers believe preservatives have changed eating habits and food production patterns more than any other type food additive Aspartame: review of safety. Butchko H.H., Stargel W.W., Comer C.P., Mayhew D.A., et. al., Medical and Scientific Affairs, The NutraSweet Company, Mt Prospect, Illinois. Regulatory Toxicology and Pharmacology, 2002 Apr;35(2 Pt 2):S1-93.. Before running to the pantry to look at what preservatives are listed on those yummy snack packs, let’s highlight some of the preservatives to keep an eye out for.
- Ascorbic Acid: A form of vitamin C and found naturally in fruits and veggies, ascorbic acid is an antioxidant that helps protect the body from free radicals (molecules that are produced when the body breaks down foods or is exposed to things like cigarette smoke or radiation). It’s an FDA approved preservative and found all over the grocery store. Typically, ascorbic acid is used to help prevent food spoilage in a wide range of products from cereal to beverages.
- Aspartame: A very common artificial sweetener, aspartame tastes up to 220 times sweeter than natural sugar! Sometimes it goes by the names NutraSweet and Equal (sound familiar?), and although there were rumors circulating that aspartame was linked to cancer, the FDA has re-approved its safety after additional research Aspartame: a safety evaluation based on current use levels, regulations, and toxicological and epidemiological studies. Magnuson B.A., Burdock G.A., Doull J., Burdock Group, Washington, DC. Critical Reviews in Toxicology, 2007;37(8):629-727..
- Taurine: Taurine is a substance that helps maintain water and electrolyte balance in the blood. While it’s naturally found in meat, fish, and breast milk, it is also found in many energy drinks. Up to 3,000 milligrams of taurine per day is considered safe, and while some think it’s iffy, research suggests the amount found in energy drinks (which could be up to 4,000 milligrams) can’t be blamed for any adverse effects on the body Safety issues associated with commercially available energy drinks. Clauson K.A., Shields K.M., McQueen C.E., College of Pharmacy-West Palm Beach, Nova Southeastern University, Palm Beach Gardens, Florida. Journal of American Pharmacology Association (2003), 2008 May-Jun;48(3):e55-63; quiz e64-7. Rapid analysis of taurine in energy drinks using amino acid analyzer and Fourier transform infrared (FTIR) spectroscopy as basis for toxicological evaluation. Triebel S., Sproll C., Reusch H., Chemisches und Veterinäruntersuchungsamt (CVUA) Karlsruhe, Karlsruhe, Germany. Amino Acids, 2007 Sep;33(3):451-7..
- Nisin: This preservative is primarily used for its anti-bacterial properties and is used in meat and poultry products, cheese, liquid eggs, and salad dressing. It is natural and considered safe to eat.
- Sulfites: These preservatives are used to stop the browning and discoloration of food, but have been linked to an asthma-related sensitivity and allergy in some cases Clinical effects of sulfite additives. Vally, H., Misso, N.L., Madan, V. National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health, ANU College of Medicine and Health Services, The Australian National University, Canberra, Australia. Clinical and Experimental Allergy: Journal of the British Society for Allergy and Clinical Immunology, 2009 Novl39(11):1643-51..
- Sodium Benzoate: This preservative helps stop the fermentation or acidification of foods and can be found in sodas and many fruit juices. Researchers believe that when sodium benzoate is mixed with Vitamin C (ascorbic acid mentioned above) it can create benzene, a known carcinogen – yikes! While there is caution to be had, you’d have to drink gallons of these benzene-filled beverages to suffer any adverse effects.
- Nitrite: This preservative is often found in meats and is responsible for giving hot dogs their red coloring. The American Cancer Society recommends people lessen their consumption of processed meats to avoid consumption of nitrites, which have even been linked to some types of cancer Dietary nitrate and nitrite and the risk of thyroid cancer in the NIH-AARP Diet and Health Study. Kilfoy B.A., Zhang Y., Park Y., Occupational and Environmental Epidemiology Branch, Division of Cancer Epidemiology and Genetics, National Cancer Institute, National Institutes of Health, Department of Health and Human Services, Rockville, MD. International Journal of Cancer, 2011 Jul 1;129(1):160-72..
- BHA/BHT: Butylated Hydroxyanisole and Butylated Hydroxytoluene (try to say that five times fast) help preserve fats and oils in food and cosmetics. The FDA has labeled both BHA and BHT as GRAS, or Generally Recognized as Safe. However, other research by the National Toxicology Program concluded that BHA has the potential to be a carcinogen, while BHT has been linked to both increased and decreased risk of cancer in a number of studies Butylated hydrozytoluene (BHT) induction of pulmonary inflammation: a role in tumor promotion. Bauer, A.K., Dwyer-Nield, L.D., Keil, K., et. Al. Department of Pharmacology, University of Colorado Health Services Center, Denver, CO. Experimental Lung Research, 2001 Apr-May;27(3):197-216.. (Unexpected fact: BHT is also used to treat some types of herpes and AIDS.)
(Want more info on other preservatives possible? Here’s a more complete list.)
If You Can’t Pronounce It… — Your Action Plan
Traumatized yet? Here are three easy tips to keep in mind while trolling the grocery store aisles to ensure a preservative-free shopping experience.
- Opt for organic. USDA organic-certified food products are guaranteed to be free of these potentially harmful preservatives. If all-organic isn’t your thing, look for packaging that indicates the contents and preservative-free.
- Go fresh. Fresh produce and plain ol’ grains and fresh meat are less likely to contain preservatives and other additives. Stay away from pre-packaged, over-processed foods as much as possible.
- Choose natural products. When purchasing processed foods, look for those labeled as “natural.” While the USDA doesn’t have a very strict definition of the “natural” labeling, these products are generally free of any artificial additives, dyes, or flavors.
How do you feel about preservatives and other food additives? Worth avoiding, or hardly harmless? Join the discussion in the comments below.