What are Preservatives?

What are Preservatives?

It’s estimated that about 10,000 chemicals are added to our food supply, including artificial preservatives, colors, flavors, sweeteners and more.

It seems like every food might include something unappealing, but avoiding artificial ingredients is easier than you might think, as long as you’re armed with the right information.

The main types of artificial preservatives are:

  • Antimicrobials – these inhibit the overgrowth of mold, yeast and bacteria. Antimicrobial preservatives include benzoates, sorbates, propionates, nitrates and nitrites.
  • Antioxidants – prevent discoloration and slow air oxidation of fats and lipids (which leads to rancidity). Antioxidant preservatives include sulfites, BHA, BHT, and vitamin C and E.
  • Chelating agents – these help to bind metals (like copper and iron) to prevent food from oxidizing and speeding up spoilage. EDTA, polyphosphates and citric acid are examples of chelating agents.

There are far too many artificial preservatives to cover in detail throughout this Challenge, so we’ll stick to those that are the most prevalent and dangerous to human health.

Eliminate Preservatives From Your Diet for Good with a Naturally Savvy Get Healthy Challenge

BHA (butylated hydroxyanisole) and BHT (butylated hydroxytoluene)

BHA and BHT fall into the ‘antioxidant’ category of food preservatives.

BHA is added to foods containing fats to prevent them from becoming rancid. It is found in cereals, dehydrated potatoes, chewing gum, baked goods, snack foods, beer, and animal feed.

A similar compound, BHT also slows the oxidation of fats. It, too, is used to preserve a food’s odor, color, and flavor. Many packaging materials, including cereal packaging, contain BHT ‘to preserve freshness’. It is also added to shortening and other foods containing fats and oils.

Research suggests that both BHA and BHT may be carcinogens and endocrine disrupters because they mimic the hormonal actions of estrogen. The World Health Organization, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services National Toxicology Program consider BHA a possible carcinogen. BHA and BHT have been known to affect the nervous system and cause behavioral problems in children. Read ingredient labels and avoid foods containing one or both of these chemicals.

Read more about BHT in your kid’s breakfast cereal


Sulfites are inorganic salts that have antioxidant and preservative properties. They are added to foods for various reasons. They slow the spoiling of food by bacteria and reduce the rate at which fruit and vegetables brown. They inhibit the growth of microorganisms during the fermentation of wine. Sometimes, sulfites are used as dough conditioners in frozen pie and pizza crusts and they may be used as bleaching agents in some foods.

Sulfites are one of the top 10 most common food allergens. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration states that 1 out of every 100 people has some type of sensitivity to sulfites. Although sulfites do not cause a true allergic reaction, sulfite-sensitive people may experience similar reactions as those with food allergies. People with asthma are most at risk of sulfite sensitivity and other reactions to sulfites. The FDA estimates that 5 percent of those with asthma are allergic to sulfites.

Symptoms of sulfite intolerance can occur within 15-30 minutes following oral exposure.

Reactions to sulfites include:

  • Flushed face, hives or a rash, red and itchy skin
  • Swelling of the eyes, face, lips, throat and tongue
  • Trouble breathing, speaking or swallowing
  • Anxiety
  • Cramping, diarrhea, vomiting
  • Rapid heart rate

The FDA requires that any food with a sulfite concentration of more than 10 parts per million (ppm) must be declared on the label. Sulfites have caused death in those severely allergic, even at doses as little as 20 ppm. Since it takes the body at least 24 hours to detoxify sulfites, ingesting multiple sulfite-containing foods throughout the day can have a cumulative effect.

Foods with the highest levels of sulfites (more than 100 ppm) include:

  • bottled lemon and lime juice
  • dried fruits (excluding dark raisins and prunes)
  • grape juices (white, white sparkling, pink sparkling, red sparkling)
  • molasses
  • pickled cocktail onions
  • sauerkraut (and its juice)
  • wine (red and white)

Those with severe sulfite allergies must strictly avoid these foods.

Foods with between 50 to 99 ppm of sulfites include:

  • balsamic vinegar
  • dried potatoes
  • fruit toppings
  • gravies and sauces
  • Maraschino cherries
  • wine vinegar

You will likely find sulfites on ingredient lists of salad dressings, jams, pickles, shredded coconut, processed cheese, fresh or frozen shrimp or lobster, and many more foods; you won’t, however, find sulfites on foods and beverages containing high fructose corn syrup. Sulfites are used to make high-fructose corn syrup, and anything containing this sweetener, such as a soda, may cause a reaction in sensitive individuals.

Adding insult to injury, sulfites destroy thiamine (vitamin B1) and may destroy folic acid (vitamin B9) in the foods to which they’re added.

Read more about sulfites

Sodium Nitrate

Sodium nitrate is a salt added to hot dogs, bacon, ham, salami, beef jerky, pepperoni, sausages and lunchmeats.

There are two reasons sodium nitrate is added to cured meats:  Firstly, it inhibits the development of Clostridium botulinum, the bacterium which causes botulism, a paralytic illness that can lead to respiratory failure. Unlike most microbes, the botulism bacteria require an oxygen-free environment to live and can contaminate canned or vacuum-packed foods, garlic stored in oil and improperly cured meats.

Secondly, sodium nitrate is responsible for the pink or red color that gives cured meats the impression that the meat is ‘fresh’ as well as the characteristic flavor of cold cuts.

Sodium nitrate is dyed pink to differentiate it from sodium chloride (table salt), particularly since it’s much more toxic. If sodium nitrate is ingested, as little as 1/6 of an ounce can be fatal!

Nitrate converts to nitrite, which possesses the antimicrobial properties. Under certain conditions, nitrites can produce carcinogenic chemical compounds called nitrosamines. Those conditions include strong acidity – as in stomach acid, or cooking with high temperatures, for example, frying, barbecuing, or sizzling pepperoni on a pizza in the oven.

Food labels do not specify the exact amount, but most foods containing sodium nitrate contain between 0.00002 and 0.004 percent.

Nitrates are linked to many various of cancer, and also to heart disease, diabetes, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s Disease.

Read more about bacon and sodium nitrite (nitrates)

Potassium Sorbate

This preservative is used to prolong shelf life by preventing mold, fungi and yeast growth. It is considered to be safe for human consumption, but has been linked to various side effects, including diarrhea and asthma.

Potassium sorbate is found in many dairy products, including cheese, yogurt, margarines, mayonnaise and sour cream, as well as in some dried fruit, fermented foods, including wine (in the form of sorbic acid) and baked goods. It is also found in a variety of body care products.

Potassium sorbate has been known to cause allergic reactions, including:

  • Itching of the mouth, throat, eyes and/or skin
  • Nasal congestion
  • Runny nose
  • Abdominal pain
  • Migraine headaches.

Symptoms typically begin within 2 hours of ingesting the preservative.

Sodium Benzoate

This widely used antimicrobial salt is found in soda, vinegar, margarine, fruit drinks, pickles, jelly and jam, wine and more.

  • Reactions to sodium benzoate include:
  •  Asthma attacks
  • Hives
  • Hyperactivity, especially in children.

A more significant issue, however, is the combination of sodium benzoate and acids in foods and beverages. When acids, such as citric acid ascorbic acid (vitamin C) are combined with sodium or potassium benzoate, they form benzene, a cancer-causing chemical associated with leukemia and other blood cancers.

Read more about why sodium benzoate is so scary

Polysorbate 60, 65 and 80

Polysorbates are a group of emulsifiers made from corn, palm oil and petroleum. They are used in many frozen desserts such as ice cream, in baked goods and snacks, including Twinkies, and may even be found in salad dressing.

Though toxicity is low, the thickening agents have been known to cause allergic reactions.

Very little research has been done on Polysorbate 80, even though it’s used in many foods, body care products and medications, including vaccines. One study, however, found it stimulated estrogen production and caused infertility in female rats. One case of anaphylaxia (as a result of polysorbate 80 in a vaccine) has been documented. Additionally, a 2010 study found that it can aggravate Crohn’s Disease.


The antioxidant TBHQ, tertiary butylhydroquinone, is a petroleum-based food additive used to increase the shelf life of products and prevent the rancidity of fats. It is used to preserve unsaturated vegetable oils, animal fats, and frozen fish, and is found in some chocolates. It is also used in perfume, varnish, lacquer, and resins.

The FDA limits the amount of TBHQ that can be used in a food to 0.02 percent. As little as 1 gram has been associated with nausea, vomiting, symptoms of ADD, and tinnitus (ringing in the ears), and it is a suspected endocrine disruptor. It has also been associated with asthma, dermatitis and rhinitis.

[Editor’s Note: If you want to eliminate unhealthy ingredients and chemical additives from your diet for good, click here to sign up for a Naturally Savvy Get Healthy Challenge.]

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Lisa has been in her own practice for over 15 years and specializes in weight management. She teaches natural nutrition in both corporate and educational environments and is a shining example of someone who practices what she teaches. Lisa is a nutritionist and educator specializing in weight management. After losing weight several years ago through a more natural diet and by improving her digestion, she committed to sharing her new-found knowledge and returned to school to study nutrition. Over the past decade, her Nu-Vitality Weight Program has helped employees at numerous corporations lose thousands of pounds. In addition, Lisa regularly consults for groups and individuals with unique nutritional needs such as police officers and athletes. Lisa has been featured on the Discovery Channel, numerous radio programs and is a contributor to various publications. Additionally, she teaches nutrition at multiple post-secondary schools, has taught natural food cooking workshops, and authored two books.