It’s become more evident that a diet that concentrates on whole foods and minimizes ultraprocessed ones is the best from a health viewpoint. Research published in February 2024 in The BMJ indicated that the more ultraprocessed items in a diet, the higher the chance of cardiometabolic and mental health issues, as well as mortality from any cause.

In spite of that, the number of additives in the U.S. food supply is expanding. More than half of all foods bought by Americans include some type of chemical coloring or flavoring agents, preservatives, and sweeteners, a 10 percent rise since 2001, according to study published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

Evidence that such additions may be a reason for worry continues to rise. A new research discovered that one popular preservative, present in cheese, dipping sauces, and beer, among other items, may significantly effect gut health. And earlier this year, a class action lawsuit was launched against the use of the phrase “no added preservatives” on food labels, putting into question how, precisely, we define preservatives and other food additives.

While certain food additives may be problematic, others are required for maintaining freshness, quality, or other reasons. Often, however, food labels are packed with substances that are foreign to everyone except a chemist or food scientist. So how can you know what’s in the food you’re consuming, and how safe it is? We invited various specialists to dive into the matter.

What Are Preservatives and Why Are They Used?

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There are lots of social media rants about “chemicals in our food,” yet all foods contain chemicals. occasionally such compounds are present naturally, and occasionally they are added by food scientists to increase the food’s life (preservatives), its texture (stabilizers), or some other quality like taste or color. Because the names of these compounds may not be readily identifiable to the ordinary consumer on food labels, they’re frequently villainized, yet many do serve crucial objectives.

“Food preservation is defined as any act or addition that inhibits undesired bacterial growth or chemical changes in a food,” explains Alyssa Pike, RD, senior manager of Nutrition Communications at the International Food Information Council in Washington, DC. In other words, preservatives make food safe for ingestion. Stabilizers, on the other hand, form stable emulsions or gels, adding thickness to meals for enhanced palatability and shelf stability.

Many types of food preservation (such as drying, chilling, and curing) have existed for thousands of years. Nowadays, contemporary science has carried the procedure even farther. “In addition to older forms of preservation that use salt and acid, other, more modern preservatives can offer benefits like inhibiting oil from going rancid or helping a food product retain its original color,” Pike adds. Besides enhancing food safety, this eventually saves food waste, according to study published in 2021 in Environmental Chemistry Letters.

Natural Versus Artificial Preservatives

Food preservatives are characterized as either natural or artificial. Natural preservatives originate from a natural source such as plants. Sugar, salt, and citric acid derived from citrus fruits are considered natural preservatives. Artificial preservatives, on the other hand, are man-made, often created in a lab. According to the Encyclopedia of Food Safety, some examples of artificial preservatives include:

  • Sodium benzoate, found in soft drinks, salad dressings, and canned tuna

  • Calcium propionate, found in baked items, processed meats, and dairy products

  • Potassium sorbate, found in cheese, wine, and dried foods

  • BHA and BHT, found in margarine and potato chips

  • TBHQ, found in pasta, cereals, and nuts

The phrase “natural” has more favorable connotations – so it’s only, well, natural to gravitate toward buying foods that include these preservatives, rather than artificial ones. But Donald Schaffner, PhD, a food scientist and distinguished professor at Rutgers University, believes this isn’t necessarily anything to worry about. “While the distinction of natural and artificial is something that the average consumer might think about, from a scientific perspective, a compound like citric acid is identical whether it is found naturally in fruits or whether it is synthesized in a factory by microorganisms,” he explains. “The body doesn't care. It just understands that it is citric acid.”

Plus, despite preservatives like salt and sugar stem from elements you’ll find in nature, that doesn’t imply they’re without health dangers. Too much sugar in the diet has been connected with increased risk of obesity.

And patients with heart health issues would do well to reduce their salt consumption, as too much sodium might boost the risk for heart disease and stroke.

Read Also: 8 Nutrition Rules to Break if Youre Exercising

Potential Health Impacts of Preservatives: Good and Bad

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Overall, the news concerning food preservatives is excellent. “The FDA confirms the safe use of all the preservatives in our food and beverage supply, and each preservative, whether artificially created or naturally sourced, must pass rigorous evaluation for safe use, including a dossier containing a full scientific evaluation,” Pike adds. Once a preservative passes this procedure, it’s certified as “Generally Recognized as Safe,” or GRAS. “This means the ingredient is certified and managed as safe to eat by the FDA,” she explains. From there, a preservative may lawfully find its way into the food supply.

Still, it’s natural if you have residual reservations about the safety of specific substances — particularly when terrifying tales about them pop up in the press, like nisin, which was the preservative connected with hurting gut health. TBHQ has also come under scrutiny for allegedly damaging the immune system.[10] And last year, California approved a measure prohibiting the use of four food additives, including the preservative propyl paraben, which is often used in baked products to inhibit microbial growth and enhance shelf life.

Does this indicate you should avoid certain ingredients? In the case of the California prohibition, the study tying the chemicals to ill health effects was performed on animals, not humans, so it is not definitive from a scientific sense. And Pike points out that in addition to classifying compounds as GRAS, the FDA exercises strict control over how much of specific additives may be put in foods. Case in point: “TBHQ levels cannot account for more than 0.02 percent of the fat and oil in food,” she explains.

A health consumer watchdog organization, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) located in Washington, DC, maintains a vast database that evaluates the safety of food additives. The database shows concerns from consumers and professionals that preservatives and stabilizers may not be as safe for eating as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) would have us think. But, according to Schaffner, “One critical aspect that is missing is a lack of citations to the scientific literature.” This lack of reference and inadequate specificity make definite health claims concerning particular preservatives impossible to substantiate, he argues.

Should You be Concerned About Food Preservatives and Stabilizers?

Any food preservative or stabilizer on the market today has been submitted to regulatory safety guardrails. “The FDA and USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service would not allow anything to be used in foods which they felt had significant public health consequences,” says Schaffner. According to Food and Nutrition, the official publication of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, stabilizers must undergo extensive testing and safety analysis before to approval in the U.S. food chain. Of course, if you know you’re sensitive or allergic to any element in meals, it’s preferable to avoid it. But in general, most of us don’t need to dread foods containing preservatives or stabilizers, whether natural or artificial.

The major take-home, says Pike, is to center your meals around natural foods that inherently contain less preservatives. “If you’re worried, remember that eating a balanced diet that contains fruits, vegetables, lean protein, healthy fats, and whole grains is the main priority.”