Food preservatives can be natural or synthetic, and are added to products to prevent spoilage or an undesirable chemical change that may alter taste, texture, or smell. Natural preservatives include salt, vinegar, alcohol, and hops, among others. Processes such as pickling, smoking, and salting are used to preserve food as well. You may know what a preservative is…but do you know which to avoid?
Sodium nitrate and sodium nitrite have excellent antimicrobial properties (sodium nitrite prevents the growth of Clostridium botolinum), and as such both compounds are used in the preservation of cured meats such as bacon and hot dogs. While the nitrate compound itself is not harmful; problems arise when these meats are cooked at high temperatures. When heated, there is potential for the formation of nitrosamines, which are carcinogens. Of note, sodium nitrate was used extensively as a fertilizer and a raw material for the manufacturing of gunpowder in the late nineteenth century.
Fat preservatives: BHT, BHA, TBHQ
Butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT), butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA), and tertiary butylhydroquinone (TBHQ) are preservatives for fats and oils. Both BHT and BHA prevent fats from becoming rancid; BHT preserves odor, color, and flavor. The compounds are directly added to shortening, cereals, and other foods containing fats and oils. Also, both are used to preserve fats and oils found in cosmetics and pharmaceuticals. TBHQ is a preservative for unsaturated vegetable oils and other animal fats, and can also be found in pet foods, varnish, and cosmetic skincare products, etc. Studies have shown that BHT and BHA increase cancer risk and are associated with hyperactivity, asthmatic complications, and liver enlargement, among others.
Food preservative and additive testing is ongoing to determine whether addition of particular compounds should be continued. Read the labels of packaged goods to check for food additives and decide for yourself whether you want to put an unknown ingredient into your body.