Preservatives are chemicals used to keep food fresh. Although there are a number of different types of food preservatives, antimicrobials, antioxidants, and products that slow the natural ripening process are some of the most common. Despite their important function, preservatives can pose a number of serious health risks
Cancer is a serious side effect associated with the use of preservatives. In fact, the National Toxicology Program reports that propyl gallate — a preservative commonly used to stabilize certain cosmetics and foods containing fat — may cause tumors in the brain, thyroid and pancreas. Similarly, InChem — an organization that provides peer-reviewed information on chemicals and contaminants — notes that nitrosames, including nitrates and nitrites, can lead to the development of certain cancer-causing compounds as they interact with natural stomach acids. Nitrosamines are found in a variety of foods, including cured meat, beer and nonfat dried milk
Hyperactivity in children is another possible side effect associated with the use of preservatives. A study published in 2004 in “Archives of Disease in Childhood” noted a significant increase in hyperactive behavior in 3-year-olds who took benzoate preservatives. Children who were enrolled in the study also demonstrated a decrease in hyperactive behavior after they stopped taking benzoate preservatives. While benzoates can be found in a number of foods, they are often used to preserve acidic foods and beverages, like soda, pickles and fruit juice
Here is a list of some preservatives to be aware of. Some of these are available separately in our Library:
Sodium benzoate: Sodium benzoate prevents the growth of bacteria and fungi, but it is one of the most dangerous preservatives there is – so dangerous that even food industry giant Coca Cola has pledged to gradually phase out its use. When sodium benzoate is mixed with vitamin C or ascorbic acid, it forms a compound called chemical benzene, a known carcinogen.
Sodium nitrite or sodium nitrate: Used as a preservative in meats, sodium nitrite is known to increase the risk of cancer.
Olestra or olean: Olestra, also known as olean, is known to cause abdominal cramps, gastrointestinal problems, and it inhibits the absorption of important vitamins.
Sulphites: Some wines and fruits contain sulphites to prevent bacterial growth and fermentation. Unfortunately, sulphites lead to allergic reactions in many people, and upon rare occasion this reaction can be fatal. Starting in the 1980s, Congress began urging the FDA to ban sulphites in raw fruits and vegetables. Since that time, the FDA has slowly been broadening its sulfite ban, but sulfites have not been completely eliminated from the food supply.
BHA and BHT: BHA and BHT are chemicals that slow food decay, but some studies show that BHA, in particular, may be a carcinogen.