7 Preservatives to Watch Out For

What are preservatives?

The term “preservatives” refers to the functional name for a wide variety of compounds that help slow or prevent bacterial growth in a wide range of products, including foods, medicines, and personal care products.

These compounds can be natural or synthetic. Preservatives play important roles in many products people use every day – for example, by helping prevent the growth of harmful microorganisms and protect products from spoilage or contamination.

Natural and Man-Made

If you really think about it, we actually ‘preserve’ fresh foods ourselves every day, by storing it in the fridge or freezer. Smoking meats or fish over burning wood or coal are also methods of preservation which date back for centuries. 

Preservatives can be both natural or man-made chemicals that are added to foods to prevent them from spoiling. The most common natural preservatives that can be added to foods include salt and sugar.

However, many packaged foods we buy need a preserving agent to keep them from going ‘off’ and to protect us against food-borne illnesses (food poisoning), which is why these preservatives are used.

Other preservatives that are commonly used in foods in small amounts include sorbates, which can be identified by the additive numbers 200-203, benzoates (210-218), sulphites (220-228) and propionates (280-283). Some nitrites (249-250) are also classified as preservatives.

Food preservatives

How do preservatives work?

The acidic nature found in preservatives prevents unwanted organisms such as moulds, yeast and bacteria, from growing in the food it is added. Preservatives can be grouped into three general types: antimicrobials that block growth of bacteria, molds or yeasts; antioxidants that slow oxidation of fats and lipids that leads to rancidity, and a third type that fights enzymes that promote the natural ripening that occurs after fruits or vegetables are picked. 

Many preservatives are GMOs.

Are preservatives and additives the same thing?

No. While all preservatives are considered additives, not all additives are considered preservatives. Additives encapsulate a much broader list of natural and man-made chemicals added to foods. 

How do I know which foods have preservatives?

Food preservatives to watch out for

On the food’s package, look out for the word ‘preservative’ followed by its additive number or name. For example, preservative (220) or (sulphur dioxide).

This system makes it easy to identify preservatives in foods. What foods contain preservatives? You may be surprised at how many foods you commonly eat contain preservatives. Items such as breads, soft drinks, cheese, margarine, wine, dried fruit, processed meats, fruit juice and raw prawns may contain preservatives.

Also, you can know that preservatives are not contained in organic foods.

Preservatives to Watch Out For

1) Sodium Benzoate

Sodium benzoate is the sodium salt of benzoic acid. , Sodium benzoate is one of the most food preservatives used in processed foods and drinks to prevent spoilage, acting as as an antifungal preservative in pharmaceutical preparations and foods.

You can find it in acidic products such as sauerkraut, jellies and jams, and sauces; however some foods, like cranberries, cinnamon, prunes and apples, naturally contain it. It has been suggested that it may help treat hyperammonemia in terms of medication.

Food labels typically reference it as sodium benzoate. Alternative names: benzoic acid, potassium benzoate, benzoate.

2) Sodium Nitrite

Sodium nitrite is usually found in preserved meat products like sausages, cured meats and canned meats.

A recent study found that methemoglobinemia, a blood disorder in which an abnormal amount of methemoglobin is produced, was found in in an adolescent girl and her father after ingesting homemade beef jerky that contained sodium nitrate.

Both experienced palpitations, dyspnea, and visible mucosal cyanosis. Concerns of this preservative are that too much may cause pancreatic cancer and other health problems.

Look for sodium nitrate on the food labels. Alternative names: sodium nitrite, nitrate, nitrite.

Top Foods with Preservatives to watch out for

3) Sodium Sulfite (E221)

According to the FDA, as many as one in 100 people is sensitive to sulfites in food.  The majority of these individuals are asthmatic, suggesting a link between asthma and sulfites. Individuals who are sulfite sensitive may experience headaches, breathing problems, and rashes. In severe cases, sulfites can actually cause death by closing down the airway altogether, leading to cardiac arrest.

Found in wine and dried fruit.

4) Sulfur Dioxide (E220)

The Food and Drug Administration have prohibited the use of sulfur dioxide on raw fruit and vegetables as they can be toxic.

Adverse reactions to include bronchial problems, particularly in those prone to asthma, hypotension (low blood pressure), flushing, tingling sensations or anaphylactic shock. It also destroys vitamins B1 and E. Long term exposure could result in a number of health issues. 

The International Labour Organization says to avoid E220 if you suffer from conjunctivitis, bronchitis, emphysema, bronchial asthma, or cardiovascular disease.

Found in beer, soft drinks, dried fruit, juices, cordials, wine, vinegar, and potato products.

Not recommended for consumption by children.

6) Propyl Paraben


With a federal study showing that 91 percent of Americans had propyl paraben in their urine, this is one of the more common preservatives. It can be found in foods such tortillas, bread products and food dyes. However, it sometimes shows up in beverages, dairy products, meat and vegetables due to cross contamination

This is of concern since propyl paraben is an endocrine-disrupting chemical that is “Generally Recognized as Safe.”

In 2002 researchers at the Tokyo Metropolitan Institute of Public Health discovered that propyl paraben decreased sperm counts in young rats at and below the concentrations which the U.S. Food and Drug Administration considers safe for human consumption in food (Oishi 2002; 21CFR184.1670).

Other researchers have confirmed propyl paraben’s effects on the endocrine system. It acts as a synthetic estrogenic compound and can alter hormone signaling and gene expression (Routledge 1998; Terasaka 2006; Vo 2011; Wróbel 2014). A recent study by researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health suggested that exposure to propyl paraben might be associated with diminished fertility (Smith 2013).

Look for propyl paraben on the food labels to avoid it. You can also check this database to see which foods contain it. 

Alternative names: 4-Hydroxybenzoesäurepropylester; propyl paraben; propyl p-hydroxybenzoate; propyl parahydroxybenzoate; nipasol; E216

7) BHA And BHT (E320)

The Chemistry of BHA and BHT

Butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA) and butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT) are commonly found in cereals, chewing gum, potato chips, and vegetable oils.

This common preservative keeps foods from changing color, changing flavor or becoming rancid. Affects the neurological system of the brain, alters behavior and has a potential to cause cancer.

At high doses, BHA has been proven to cause cancer in rats, mice and hamsters, but it does this exclusively in the forestomach, an organ that humans don’t have. In the low levels used in food preservatives, however, many researchers consider it perfectly safe, especially given our lack of forestomachs. In fact, the same antioxidant effects that BHA has on fats can also neutralize the threat of other carcinogens.

Found in potato chips, gum, cereal, frozen sausages, enriched rice, lard, shortening, candy, jello. 

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