What To Know About Preservatives in Food

While many of us strive to cook meals using fresh ingredients, busy schedules over the course of our week often lead to home-cooking burnout and the desire for delivery or takeout—sometimes before we’ve used all the food we bought on our weekly grocery run. One food-industry invention that can keep items in our fridge or pantry fresher for longer. Preservation. Preservatives help maintain the taste and nutrition of many food ingredients by extending the quality and safety of those foods beyond what they would be capable of on their own. Read on to discover more about food preservation and how preservatives are used in our food.

So, what is food preservation?

Food preservation is defined as any act or addition that inhibits undesired bacterial growth or chemical changes in a food. And while that might sound high-tech, many kinds of food preservation have been around for thousands of years. In fact, you likely practice food preservation daily without even knowing it. There are two categories of preservation: chemical and physical. When you wash raw produce or freeze your chicken, you are practicing physical preservation. Curing and pickling, in contrast, are examples of chemical preservation, because they use salt and vinegar (acetic acid) to alter foods to keep them edible (and delicious) for longer periods.

Why are preservatives used in food? And what exactly are their benefits?

Preservatives allow us to keep food safe for much longer. In addition to older forms of preservation that use salt and acid, other, more modern preservatives can offer benefits like inhibiting oil from going rancid or helping a food product retain its original color.

One often-overlooked benefit of food preservatives is that they reduce food waste. According to estimates by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), food waste in the U.S. is “estimated at between 30–40 percent of the food supply.” When we can extend the shelf-life of products, we reduce the need to throw food out: a win-win for both the environment and our pocketbooks.

Preservatives can also have nutritive roles as well. Take ascorbic acid, for example. Ascorbic acid is a powerful antioxidant and antimicrobial compound that is added to everything from bacon to packaged apple slices to carbonated drinks. But did you know ascorbic acid is also an essential nutrient in our diets? Ascorbic acid—more commonly known as vitamin C! —can both preserve foods and directly satisfy some of our daily nutrition requirements. So, the next time you see the chemical name of this preservative on a label, know you are getting a dose of the sunshine vitamin!

In addition to nutrition, one of the biggest benefits of preservatives is increased food safety. Many natural and living microorganisms can produce toxins that can increase the risk of many foodborne illnesses. Ask yourself this: Have you ever heard of a friend getting ill from botulinum poisoning in sausage? What about catching tuberculosis from drinking milk? It may sound ridiculous, but these were both deadly diseases that were found in these food products at one point in history. Food preservation has been an integral part of why these particular foodborne illnesses have been mitigated. Specifically, the addition of nitrites to cured meat products helps stop Clostridium botulinum growth, and pasteurization (of raw milk) has effectively addressed the presence of Mycobacterium tuberculosis in fluid milk.

What are the names of some common preservatives? 

Many times, preservatives seem to have intimidating names on food labels. In addition to ascorbic acid and nitrites, terms like BHA and TBHQ don’t exactly roll off the tongue—or necessarily sound natural. But an important thing to know is that usually, these more scientific terms are used for food ingredients we do know, like a salt (e.g., sodium benzoate, calcium propionate, sodium erythorbate, sodium nitrite, or calcium sorbate), a vitamin (e.g., ascorbic acid or tocopherols), or an antioxidant (like BHA, or butylated hydroxyanisole; BHT, or butylated hydroxytoluene; or EDTA, ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid). Keep in mind that each preservative has a highly specific function when it’s added, so do not fear!

Are preservatives safe for me and my family?

Absolutely! This is one of the most asked questions about many of the unfamiliar preservative ingredients that are used in our food. In fact, the U.S. FDA confirms the safe use of all the preservatives used in our food and beverage supply. Preservatives (whether they are artificially created or naturally sourced) must pass rigorous evaluation for their safe use—including a dossier containing a full scientific evaluation. Once the FDA has thoroughly reviewed and approved the data for any given preservative, that ingredient may be deemed safe and given a status confirming so to American consumers. This status is known as a “Generally Recognized as Safe,” or “GRAS,” certification, which means the ingredient is certified and managed as safe to eat by the FDA.

The next time you are at the grocery store or even browsing through your pantry, check the ingredients lists to see if you can identify any common preservatives in your food. As you now know, many safe preservatives can help extend the shelf-life of your food for the inevitable night when a good frozen pizza (instead of the meal you planned to cook) sounds way easier for the evening. The bottom line? Preservatives can be a reliable friend to lean on as you wait to find the vigor to cook again!

This article contains contributions from Jacob Farr and Eddie Orzechowski.