Do you ever look at the ingredient list on packaged food and feel like you need a chemistry degree to understand what all of those weird scientific-sounding words mean? Yeah, most people do too. But here’s the thing: even if you can’t pronounce them, that doesn’t mean they’re good for you. In fact, many common preservatives are best avoided in food.
So today, we’re going to take a look at some of the most common ones to watch out for. Spoiler alert: they’re not all that great for you! (But don’t worry, we’ll also give you some tips on how to find food without them.)
What Are Chemical/Artificial Preservatives?
Simply put, chemical preservatives are substances (usually parabens and organic acids) added to foods and food products to keep them from spoiling. Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong with food preservation. After all, nobody wants to eat a moldy piece of food. But the problem is that not all preservatives are created equal. Some are actually quite harmful to your health, while others (natural ones) are perfectly safe.
The thing is, it can be tough to tell which food preservatives are which. That’s because they’re usually listed on food labels by their scientific names, not their common names. So unless you’re a chemist (or you happen to have a degree in food science), you might not even know what you’re eating!
Luckily, we’re here to help. Here are some of the most common chemical preservatives and what you need to know about them.
1. Sodium Nitrite/Nitrate
You’ll find sodium nitrite in plenty of processed meats, like bacon, hot dogs, and lunch meats. It’s used as a food preservative because it prevents the growth of bacteria, and it also gives these meats their characteristic pink color.
But here’s the thing: sodium nitrite can be converted into cancer-causing chemicals called nitrosamines in your body. And when you eat processed meats that contain sodium nitrite, those nitrosamines can increase your risk of cancer. You can avoid this by making the switch to a plant-based/ Vegan diet. Vegan diets have been shown to decrease the risk of cancer.
Sulfites are a group of chemicals that are commonly added to food as preservatives. You’ll find them in dried fruit, wine, and some processed foods. They’re used because they prevent the growth of bacteria and fungus, and they also help to preserve the color of food.
However, sulfites can trigger asthma attacks in people who are sensitive to them. In fact, the FDA requires that all packaged foods that contain sulfites must list them on the label. So if you have asthma or are sensitive to sulfites, make sure to check food labels carefully before you buy anything.
3. Potassium Benzoate/Sorbate
Potassium benzoate is another common preservative, and you’ll find it in plenty of soft drinks and fruit juices. It’s used because it prevents the growth of mold, yeast, and bacteria.
However, there’s something they don’t tell you. When potassium benzoate is combined with ascorbic acid (vitamin C), it can form a carcinogen called benzene. So if you’re going to consume foods or drinks that contain potassium benzoate, make sure they don’t also contain vitamin C.
4. BHA (Butylated Hydroxyanisole) and BHT (Butylated Hydroxytoluene)
BHA and BHT are two more preservatives that you’ll find in plenty of processed foods, like cereals, chips, and vegetable oils. Like sodium nitrite, they’re used to prevent the growth of bacteria and improve the shelf-life of food. But unfortunately, they come with some pretty serious health risks.
BHA has been classified as a possible human carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer. And while BHT is not considered carcinogenic, it has been linked to liver toxicity and endocrine disruption. So it’s probably best to avoid foods that contain these preservatives.
5. Sodium Benzoate
Sodium benzoate is a preservative that you’ll find in soda, sports drinks, and fruit juices. It’s used to prevent the growth of bacteria and fungi, and it also extends the shelf-life of these beverages. But unfortunately, it comes with some pretty serious health risks.
When sodium benzoate is combined with ascorbic acid (vitamin C), it can form benzene. So if you’re drinking a soda or juice that contains both sodium benzoate and vitamin C, you could be increasing your risk of cancer. That’s why it’s best to avoid these beverages altogether.
Propylparaben is a preservative that you’ll find in many cosmetics, including makeup, shampoo, and lotion. But unfortunately, it has been linked to some pretty serious health risks.
Studies have shown that propylparaben can disrupt hormone function and increase the risk of cancer. So if you’re using any products that contain this preservative, it’s best to switch to something else.
7. Food Additives
You’ll find plenty of “food additives” in canned foods, and these are usually added for flavor, color, or texture. But some of these additives can actually be pretty harmful to your health.
For example, monosodium glutamate (MSG) is a food additive that’s often used to enhance the flavor of food. But it can also cause headaches, nausea, and other adverse effects in some people. So it’s probably best to avoid foods that contain MSG.
Another additive to watch out for is artificial coloring. These dyes are often used to make food look more appealing, but they can actually be pretty harmful to your health. Studies have linked artificial food coloring to ADHD and other behavioral problems in children. So it’s best to avoid foods that contain these dyes.
8. Partially Hydrogenated Oils
Partially hydrogenated oils are a type of trans fat, and they’re often used in processed foods to improve texture and extend shelf-life. But unfortunately, they come with pretty serious health risks.
Trans fats have been linked to an increased risk of heart disease, stroke, and other cardiovascular problems. So it’s best to avoid foods that contain these oils.
Are Additives The Same Thing As Preservatives?
Not all additives are preservatives, but all preservatives are additives. An additive is any substance that’s added to food for the purpose of changing its color, texture, flavor, or shelf-life. A preservative is a type of additive that’s used to prevent the growth of bacteria and other microorganisms. So while all preservatives are additives, not all additives are preservatives.
5 Ways To Avoid Chemical Preservatives
Now that you know the risks associated with these common preservatives, you might be wondering how you can avoid them. Here are a few tips:
1. Read Food Labels Carefully
When you’re at the grocery store, take a few minutes to read the food labels. If a product contains any of the preservatives we’ve discussed, put it back on the shelf and find something else.
2. Shop At Farmer’s Markets
Farmer’s markets are a great place to find fresh, local foods that haven’t been treated with chemicals. So if you can, make an effort to shop at your local farmer’s market instead of the grocery store.
3. Make Your Own Food From Scratch
One of the best ways to avoid chemical preservatives is to make your food from scratch. That way, you’ll know exactly what’s going into your body. And it can be a lot of fun too!
4. Buy Organic Foods Whenever Possible
Organic foods are grown without the use of synthetic pesticides or fertilizers. So they’re a great option if you’re looking to avoid chemicals.
5. Educate Yourself About These Chemicals
The more you know about these chemicals, the easier it will be to avoid them. So take some time to educate yourself about the risks associated with these common preservatives. Then, you can make an informed decision about whether or not you want to consume them.
Natural Preservatives You Can Try
If you want to preserve your food without relying on chemical preservation, there are a few natural options you can try. Here are a few of the most popular ones:
1. Citric Acid
Citric acid occurs naturally in citrus fruits such as oranges and lemons. It has a ton of applications, everything from food and supplements to disinfectants and cleaners.
Vinegar is made by fermenting alcohol. It’s a great natural preservative and can be used in everything from salad dressings to marinades.
Salt is a great way to preserve food and prevent bacteria from growing. Just be sure not to use too much, as it can make your food taste pretty salty!
Honey is a natural antibacterial and can help to preserve food for extended periods. Plus, it’s an excellent sweetener for foods such as fruits and yogurt.
5. Olive Oil
Olive oil is a great natural preservative for foods such as salad dressings and dipping sauces. Plus, it’s a healthy option overall.
These are just a few of the many natural preservatives you can try. So if you’re looking to avoid synthetic chemicals, there are plenty of options available to you. Just be sure to do your research and choose the option that’s best for you and your family.
Chemical preservatives are common in many processed foods. While they can help to extend the shelf-life of food, they can also be detrimental to your health. So it’s important to be aware of the risks associated with these chemicals and take steps to avoid them.
There are a few ways you can avoid chemical preservatives, such as reading food labels carefully, shopping at farmer’s markets, and making your own food from scratch.
If you’re looking for natural alternatives to synthetic preservatives, there are a few options you can try, such as citric acid, vinegar, salt, honey, and olive oil. Just be sure to do your research and choose the option that’s best for you and your family.
Avoiding chemical preservatives is a great way to protect your health. So take some time to learn about these common chemicals and take steps to avoid them. Your body will thank you!
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