Food additives: preservatives

A lot of food additives are still harmful today and we all consume them. But the only thing we can do to overcome eating of it is educating more about the harmful food additives. Because the producer is required to put all the ingredients on the label, we can prevent to eat from it when we always read the label on a product before we purchase it. But because the words of these additives are foreign and tedious defined a lot of people skip over them. The producers are clever today. When there is labelled onto the product that is doesn’t contain ‘Natural flavors’ or ‘No preservatives’, it doesn’t mean that there are no other harmful food additives present [1].

There is already been told about a lot of food additives. About the effect of sweeteners, colourings, etc. There is also another group of food additives that is important and worldwide used a lot. This are the preservatives, which are added to food to increase food safety and enlarge the shelf-life by limiting bacterial growth. I will give you a short overview of a few preservatives and their effect on human or animal health [2].

–          Benzoic acid and sodium benzoate: these are used for preservation of soft drinks, fruit juices and acidic foods. Sodium benzoate is even used for the inborn errors of the urea cycle, but can have some adverse effects as anorexia. The preservative can cause animal toxicities, but with human it is will involve mild hypersensitivity reactions [2].

–          Sulphites: Sulphites are present in beer and wine, packaged fruits, vegetables and seefood. Sulphites is added to prevent discoloration. A response to this food preservative is hypersentivity, especially for asthmatic patients. But there are also sulphite-induced symptoms with patients without asthma or an allergy. Symptoms could be urticarial, angioedema or even IgE anaphylaxis, which is really critic. Therefore the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) doesn’t permit sulphites in raw food, only in processed food. When sulphites is used in a processed food, it has to be mentioned on the label if the concentration exceeds 10 ppm. Only substances, that aren’t generally recognized as safe (GRAS), require FDA authorization to use it as a food additive [2].

–          Nitrites and nitrates: these preservatives are added to meat, because they can prevent the growth of Clostridium botulinum. Nitrites form N-nitrosamines when they react with amines in food and will decompose into free-radical alkyl carbonium ions, which are mutagenic in rodents. There is also been demonstrated a higher dose of nitrite and salivary nitrate in oral cancer patients [2].

–          Propionic acid: Propionic acid is added to pastry. In rats it can cause fore stomach tumors, but in human it is not proved if there are caused tumors [2].

–          Antibiotics: this is a very well-known form of preservatives. It is used to control pathogenic organism during food production. Because of the antibiotics in food, human will get a higher bacterial resistance when they consume antibiotic containing food [2].

Especially the risk of getting more and more resistant to bacteria in the future is very dangerous. But everybody knows preservatives are necessary to conserve food for a longer period. What do you think about it? And what can we for example do about it to not become super resistant human beings in the future? Is there a possibility to prevent it?



[1]          How do food additives affect your health, Joe Costello, 16 December 2010,, consulted on 10 March 2011

[2]          Cyrus Rangan et al., Food additives and sensitives, Barceloux D, Medical Toxicology of Natural Substances: Foods, Fungi, Medicinal Herbs, Toxic Plants, and Venomous Animals, John Wiley & Sons, 2008. p. 22-33


7 Responses so far »

  1. 1

    Andrea said,

    To avoid dangerous food additives I read very carefully ingredients lists.
    When buying food I always take with me my iPhone on which I installed an application that gives informations on additives.
    There are many apps around some of which are free. I chose one named Personal Food Additives because it allows me to define my personal profile and gives me targeted information.

  2. 2

    liesbethboon said,

    My comment on the nitrate/nitrite part:

    Stated by

    80% up till 90% of nitrate consumed by people is from vegetables. Meat products are responsible for less than 10% of the nitrate concentrations, but they are responsible for 60% up till 90% of our nitrite consumption.

    Nitrate can be found as a natural component in vegetables and fruits, because of there main role in the Nitrogen-cycle.

    We can also find nitrate in our dinking-water and in the air. Our body produces nitrate by oxidation of L-arginine. In case we want to quit drinking, washing, breathing, living and eating vegetables… it seems to me that worrying about nitrate/nitrite as additive is not necessary, as our government regulates this strictly.

    Accept of course for the effect of nitrite we know as “blauwe baby’s”. This is when nitrate is transformed to nitrite and this binds to the iron(II) in our haemoglobin. This results in iron(III), which makes oxygen-transportation difficult. Which results in shortness of breath and in turning bleu. This is something we mostly find in newborns when the wrong water is used to make their babymilk. If this is notised in time, no harm is done.

    About clostridium: I ask myself the question, you want to take the long-term risk of the effects of nitrate/nitrite, or you want to take the very short-term and lethal risk of clostridium?

  3. 3

    liesbethboon said,

    In my opinion there is a big difference in additives used for food-safety and additives used to fulfil in our luxury needs. I mean, we should quit the additives that only have influence on color and just accept that if we buy products which are already prepared, they have a “less tasty”-color.

    If we would quit these unnecessary treatments and would not add these rather expensive additives, would our food be more affordable?

  4. 4

    abefreija said,

    First of all, I think we are overreacting a bit here. As previously mentioned all additives are continuously controlled by European agencies. If we can’t thrust them in their opinion about the safety of a certain additive, then what should we do? I think that when something is really proven unsafe, they wouldn’t allow using it in products.

    Furthermore, I think we shouldn’t act like the producers are criminals, who are hiding certain additives on their labels.
    If a package says ‘natural flavor’ or ‘no preservatives’, normally there aren’t any in it. It’s forbidden by the European Commission to make claims which can’t be proven.
    The statement made in the article: ‘How do food additives affect your health’ is complety wrong I think. There they state: ‘For instance, “Natural Flavors” or “No Preservatives” are commonly found on packaged food products, but does this mean that the product is free of harmful food additives? Absolutely not.’ No, they probably aren’t free of so called ‘harmful’ additives but they are though free of synthetic flavors and preservatives. They generalize enormously in this article!

    It’s true what Liesbeth says: ‘There is a big difference in additives used for food-safety and additives used to fulfill in our luxury needs.’
    Preservatives CAN’T be cut out if we want to live, the way we do now! We all want to eat whatever we want, whenever we want. And if we buy something in the store and eventually aren’t in the mood for cooking, we put in back in the cupboard. If it wasn’t for preservatives, we couldn’t do that!
    The question is: is this luxury or not?

    Other methods to preserve food are freezing, cooling, sterilization, etc. but every technique has its own (dis)advantages too. For example, sterilization, is used to guarantee food safety, but the quality of some product after sterilization isn’t good. That’s why they use the so called ‘Hordentechnologie’, and use these methods in combination with preservatives, to maintain food-safety AND quality.
    It’s simply a decision you have to make for yourself: preservatives or no preservatives? But you have to realize, products without preservatives, can never be treated the same as product with them!

    At last I want to say that I don’t think we will become super resistant humans or something like that! =) If you do think so, I want to ask something: would you rather want preservatives in your food, from which you think they COULD be harmful in long-term, or would you rather die from a Clostridium intoxication right away? It’s your choice.. And by the way, preservatives are used in VERY SMALL quantities compared to for example antibiotics when you’re sick, think about that..

    So I think people should think twice before getting all freaked out about preservatives on the label of their favorite food and think about all the other unhealthy things in life like smoking, exhaustion, global warming and using too much mayonnaise =)

  5. 5

    Andrea said,

    I agree that not all the additives are dangerous but some of them really are (E320 and E496 for example) or other can increase symptoms of some health issues.
    Reading information on FDA and EFSA internet sites I found many examples of harmful substances that are allowed in regulated amounts. Many of them have been banned in many countries. There must be a reason.
    I prefer to try to reduce the risk and avoid them whenever possible.

  6. 6

    christelhouben said,

    It is true that nitrates are already present in vegetables as a natural component. But when it is added as a preservative, than the amount of preservative will increase more and more. So it is about the fact that the preservatives will make it worse.
    Further on the lethal risk of Clostridium botulinum, I don’t want to take that risk no. But how many times Clostridium botulinum is present in food? I think nitrates and nitrites are more common present in food than Clostridium botulinum, so what do you prefer? Clostridium botulinum or oral cancer? Maybe Clostridium botulinum is a present after a short term and oral cancer will be present after a long term. But when I am honest, I don’t want both of them!
    But the purpose is to take a quick look at the ingredients when you buy something in the supermarket and just pay attention you don’t eat it too much.
    Of course preservatives are necessary to prevent other harmful suspects, as for example Cl. Botulinum, but not on a regularly basis, as for example every day eating prepared food.
    As Liesbeth said, I think it is true we need preservatives when it comes to ‘safe’ food. But it has to be limited when it is only preferred for a nice, better color, very long storage times, etc.

    Further I told about producers who label their products with ‘natural flavors’ or ‘no preservatives’; I clearly said that it doesn’t mean there are not other additives available. I didn’t said that they put on the label there are ‘no preservatives’ meanwhile there are still preservatives present. So that’s a big difference! What I mean is they put on the label ‘no preservatives’ but there are still other additives present in the product that could be harmful. A nice example of this comes from the TV program Basta about a color paint. The color paint has a label with ‘free of components of a seal’, BUT what they don’t put on the label is that it may contain traces of panda. And in my opinion, what is worse? Traces of a seal or traces of a panda? I don’t want both of them in my color paint!
    Maybe it is not food but is just the explanation of what I mean, the producers don’t always tell the truth about what is present in their product. I think that when there are still other additives in the product, than what is the value of ‘no preservatives’ on the label of the product?

    The fact that if we are not in the mood of cooking after we bought something in the supermarket, so we can store it for a longer time, it is a little bit luxury. It is the luxury of today, the progress of food preservation, but it isn’t always good. It is not good, healthy when you eat it daily. So consumption simply should be limited.

    I don’t think it’s about ‘getting freaked out’ or whatever you want to call it. But it just realizing that it is not good to eat TOO much preserved food TOO many times. So I agree with Andrea when she says, that if it is possible to avoid it to don’t eat it every time by just looking at the label, it can reduce some risks. I also agree on Koen to be skeptic, you can’t trust everything a producer would have you to believe. I don’t think you can compare it to smoking, global warming, etc. Smoking is much worse than eating preservatives! But if you just think: ‘oh, there are so many subjects that are much worse than eating preservatives’ than you don’t have to take into account anything, because there will be always something that is much worse!!

  7. 7

    Andrea said,

    Like christelhouben and Koen said before me, permitted substances are not necessarily safe.

    As an example:
    Take a look at the documentation available on Butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA) also known as E320.
    It can be found in chewing gums, in fried potatoes and other food.
    It’s use is allowed although it is suspected to be carginogenic.

    Why should we eat it?

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