Let’s begin by talking about what a “food preservative” is, and why it may be in our food. A food preservative is a substance added to foods to “preserve” them or make them last longer. Preservatives work to preserve food in a few different ways. Some prevent the growth of bacteria and mold and others prevent delicate fats from going rancid.
Why should we care about added preservatives in our foods?
But aren’t added preservatives safe to eat?
While preservatives added to foods should be “approved,” by regulatory authorities, it doesn’t mean they’re guaranteed to be safe for everyone. It certainly doesn’t mean that the food is healthy either – usually, just the opposite.
There are many different types of preservatives out there, but here are a few of the more common ones:
That’s right – salt.
FUN FACT: In ancient times, salt was used as a method of trade and currency because it was such a valuable commodity. The term “salary” is from the Latin word for salt. The word “salad” also originated from “salt,” and refers to the early Romans who salted their leafy greens and vegetables. Salt was sought after because of its ability to preserve food before refrigeration was invented.
In today’s day and age, with fridges and freezers in every home and grocery store, salt is not needed for food preservation as much. Our taste buds still seem to crave it on an epic scale though. The average American eats over 3,400 mg of sodium per day, which is well over the recommended 2,300 mg/day. Much of that is because salt is a common ingredient 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.”
Salt is one of those all-too-common food preservatives that most of us would do better with less of.
Nitrites (nitrates and nitrosamines)
Nitrites are preservatives that are added to processed meats. They’re not bad in and of themselves, but they do turn into harmful chemicals called nitrosamines. Nitrites form nitrosamines when they’re cooked at high heat, and sometimes even when exposed to the high acid environment of the stomach. Nitrosamines are the same carcinogens found in cigarette smoke.
Nitrites are added to meats to keep their pink-red color and to prevent “browning.” These Nitrites are found mostly in bacon, ham, sausages and lunch meats. Since nitrites can change into nitrosamines, nitrites are one-step away from being the “bad guys.”
Could nitrites really be that bad?
Processed meats have been linked with colon cancer, so you may want to think twice before diving into that ham sandwich…
In any event, nitrosamines are a confirmed health-buster and definitely something we need to remove from our diet.
Nitrosamines (from nitrites) are the bad guys and are formed by cooking nitrites at high heat, so then what are nitrates?
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
BHA (butylated hydroxyanisole) and BHT (butylated hydroxytoluene) are antioxidants added to many processed foods. BHA and BHT are added to prevent fats from going rancid.
But are they safe?
BHA and BPA have been approved for use as a preservative at small doses in the US. 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.
Canada is one of several countries who has banned the use of BHA and BHT in foods…
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. The easiest way to avoid them? Eat fresh foods.