Preservatives are used in all processed and boxed foods we find at the grocery store to make them more shelf stable – last longer – and palatable for a longer period of time.
So what is a food preservative?
Preservatives work to preserve food in a few different ways. Some prevent the growth of bacteria and mold. Others prevent delicate fats from going rancid.
There are so many preservatives out there. While preservatives added to foods should be “approved,” this doesn’t mean they’re guaranteed to be safe for everyone always. And it doesn’t mean that the food is healthy.
Foods with preservatives are more-processed, less-nutritious foods to begin with – not exactly health foods. So, even if you don’t mind preservatives, you probably should cut down on these kinds of foods, anyway.
Here are 3 common food preservatives that you should know about.
That’s right – salt.
FUN FACT: The term “salary” is from the Latin word for salt. It’s thought that it came from the ancient Romans who would pay employees, allowing them to buy salt. Either that, or it was for their work conquering and/or guarding salt mines/roads. Either way, salt was precious and of high value because of its ability to preserve food before the advent of refrigeration.
In today’s day and age, with fridges and freezers in every home and grocery store, and refrigerated trucks, salt is not needed for food preservation as much. But our taste buds still seem to crave it on an epic scale. Potato chips anyone?
The average American eats over 3,400 mg of sodium per day, well over the recommended 2,300 mg/day. Much of that is because it’s found in processed foods.
According to Harvard Health:
“… reducing dietary salt (table salt that is only sodium, chloride and iodine) will lower blood pressure, reduce the risk of heart attack and stroke and save lives.”
So, salt is one of those all-too-common food preservatives that most of us will do better with less of.
Mind you, we are speaking of table salt that is added to processed foods. If we are preparing whole foods at home on a regular basis and we are using Himalayan salt, Celtic Salt or Sea salt, we are most often ok, as we are not exposed to this high of quantity of salt.
And also, our adrenals love salt – so no salt is also not an option.
Nitrites (nitrates and nitrosamines)
Nitrites are preservatives added to processed meats. They’re not bad in and of themselves, but they do turn into harmful chemicals called nitrosamines. Nitrosamines are carcinogens found in cigarette smoke. Nitrites form nitrosamines when they’re cooked at high heat and sometimes even when exposed to the high acid environment of the stomach.
Nitrites are added to meats to keep the pink-red colour and prevent “browning.” Mostly in bacon, ham, sausages and lunch meats. Since nitrites can change into nitrosamines, nitrites are one-step away from being the “bad guys.”
If you still want to keep these foods in your diet, opt for nitrite-free options. You recognize a paler color of the product. Chicken or turkey breast are more likely to be found without nitrites as an ingredient.
Another interesting thing is that processed meats have been linked with colon cancer. Because of the nitrites? Perhaps, but either way, nitrosamines are a confirmed health-buster.
Since nitrosamines (from nitrites) are the bad guys and are formed by cooking nitrites at high heat, what are nitrates?
Pay attention, don’t confuse nitrites with nitrates. They are not the same.
Nitrates are naturally found in many healthy foods like vegetables. They’re especially high in beets. Sometimes our enzymes or gut bacteria change these healthy nitrates into nitrites. However, they rarely form nitrosamines because they’re two-steps away from becoming these “bad guys.”
BHA & BHT
Have you seen on packages “BHA/BHT has been added to the package to help maintain freshness?” Perhaps on cereal packages or in gum? Guess how these compounds maintain freshness? Because they’re preservatives.
BHA (butylated hydroxyanisole) and BHT (butylated hydroxytoluene) are antioxidants added to many processed foods. The main way BHA and BHT work is by preventing fats from going rancid.
Are they safe? Well, they’re approved for use as a preservative at small doses. However, some studies show they can cause cancer in animals at high doses. Again, they’re added to processed pre-packaged foods, so it’s wise to avoid them nonetheless.
Also think about the fact that if you eat/buy many different packaged foods, the amount of BHA/BHT can accumulate and therefore your dose might exceed the recommended safety dose. This is hard to know, so avoidance and buying less is the better option here.
There are a lot of preservatives in our food supply. These compounds work by preventing the growth of bacteria and mold or by preventing fats from going rancid. And they’re mostly found in processed foods. If you want to avoid them eat fresh foods.
Does this information make you want to read all your food ingredient labels now? Let me know in the comments below.