Understanding Food Preservatives: What Are The Health Risks?

Preservatives are common in much of the food we consume, but there are still questions regarding the safety of these ingredients.
Understanding Food Preservatives: What Are The Health Risks?
November 16, 2021

Without proper food processing and management, the end product consumers eat can’t be guaranteed to be safe. Food-borne illnesses occur regularly all over the world, and because food is being transported globally, preservation techniques need to be flawless to ensure safety.

Over the last several years, researchers have looked at improving food preservation techniques, with the goal of ensuring food safety all through the food distribution line.

What is the purpose of food preservatives?

In brief, preservatives make foods last longer or taste better. They’re ingredients added during the manufacturing or processing stage. For example, sulphites used in wine, and nitrates used in meat. Human health can be negatively impacted, though, when too much of a preservative is added. That’s one reason it’s important to always follow instructions when using preserved products in your business.

Increased shelf life is among the main benefits of food preservatives, which are added during food processing to limit the growth of dangerous microbes. Microscopic germs are everywhere, but some of them are dangerous and can cause illness. High-risk food items such as meat, seafood, dairy and cheese are a breeding ground for potentially dangerous microbes because of their high moisture content. Preservatives are usually needed to ensure these high-risk products are safe for consumption.

Are additives and preservatives the same thing?

Preservatives are additives, but additives are not necessarily preservatives. Additives are primarily included in the food-manufacturing process to enhance a product’s flavour, colour or texture. Additives are not used to enhance food safety, but to improve aesthetic appeal of the product.

Preservatives commonly found in food

Natural, or non-synthetic preservatives, are ingredients found in nature. They include:

  • Ascorbic acid: This is more widely known as Vitamin C. It prevents bread from spoiling, and can be used to add citrus flavour to foods like candies.
  • Citric acid: This is usually used to enhance the flavour of foods such as jams or juices.
  • Vitamin E, or tocopherols: Vitamin E occurs naturally in nuts and seeds, and is used to prevent browning.
  • Betanin: Used to colour foods such as ice cream, sugar coatings or fruit fillings, betanin is a compound found in beet root and other natural foods with a reddish pigment.

Man-made, or synthetic preservatives, are used in a lot of the food we consume. These preservatives include:

  • Calcium phosphate: It’s used to thicken and stabilize foods, and to prevent lumps from forming in baked goods.
  • Sorbic acid: It occurs naturally in berries, and is used in wine, cheese and meats. It can also prevent mould and yeasts from growing.
  • Nitrates and nitrites: When naturally occurring, these can be safe. Usually, though, nitrates/nitrites are used in meat to add colour and preserve shelf life. In large quantities, these preservatives can be carcinogenic, which is why if meat does not contain nitrates/nitrites, the producer will advertise that fact to increase sales.
  • Benzoic acid and sodium benzoate: Benzoic acid occurs naturally in some fruits and spices. Because it’s not water-soluble, sometimes sodium benzoate is used instead. Though both help limit microbial growth, benzoate contains small amounts of the carcinogen benzene.
  • Sulfites: Used to prevent browning, sulfites often appear in ingredient lists as sulfur dioxide, potassium metabisulfite, sodium metabisulfite, sodium metabisulfite, sodium sulfite or sodium bisulfite. Sulfites prevent dried fruits from rotting and are used to preserve fruit juices and wine. They’re considered safe but can impact people who suffer from asthma — even causing severe asthma attacks in rare instances.
  • EDTA: Plenty of sauces, canned foods and carbonated beverages contain EDTA, which stands for ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid. It’s considered safe and helps prevent food from oxidizing, a process that can change the appearance and taste of the food, and turn food rotten.
  • BHT and BHA: Like EDTA, these preservatives prevent oxidization. Butylated Hydroxytoluene and Butylated Hydroxyanisole are actually antioxidants — substances that can prevent or slow damage to cells caused by free radicals — and are seen as safe in limited amounts. BHA is waxy in texture, and BHT is a powder, and they appear in cereals, dehydrated potato shreds and beverages.

Studies are needed to determine risks of food preservatives

One of the main purposes of preservatives is to increase food safety by halting the growth of harmful microbes, including bacteria, yeast and mould.

Even while recognized as safe for the general population, many food preservatives and additives can be harmful — even deadly — to certain people. And many preservatives would be harmful to everyone if they surpass a certain quantity in any given food.

Betanin, for instance, could cause a severe allergic reaction in someone who’s allergic to beetroot. Synthetic preservatives present different risks: some are known to cause cancer in high amounts, or in the case of nitrates, for example, to have carcinogenic properties when cooked at very high temperatures.

More studies, and longer-term studies, are needed to determine the true risk of consumption of these preservatives over time. Testing is an ongoing process, and the more tests conducted, the more information will become available to food businesses.

Preservatives could trigger an allergic reaction

Customers may have an intolerance or allergy to certain preservatives, so Food Handlers must be aware of what foods contain which preservatives, as some can cause negative reactions when consumed by people with sensitivities.

Any food may contain an allergen. It is vital that the business ensures procedures and training are put in place so that food service staff understand their obligations to declare known allergens in food when a customer asks.

Food allergies and intolerances are becoming more common in Canada, with over 2.6 million Canadians reported having at least one food allergy. Food Handlers need to understand their role in knowing what is in each and every food, as well as where to find that information if a customer asks. Whether you’re handling, preparing, or just selling ready-made food, you still have the same responsibility to the customer. By knowing what is in each food product, you can safeguard your business from lawsuits and lost revenue, and more importantly, you can protect customers.

Food Handlers are responsible for knowing how to manage allergy-related requests and questions from customers. The Canadian Institute of Food Safety’s (CIFS) Allergy Management Checklist was developed to assist food businesses in preventing negative reactions from allergies and intolerances. By putting procedures in place, training staff and making customers aware of ingredients in all menu items, you can run a safe and profitable business.