Food preservatives almost universally catch a bad rap. A lot of it is well deserved, as artificial preservatives have been linked to a litany of health issues. But there’s actually a give and take with food preservatives. Some of them actually help us and improve the quality of the food we eat for longer periods of time.
There’s still a huge market out there for preservative-free foods. A lot of this is due to panic, however, and not all preserved foods should be thought of as evil. In many ways, it’s almost like the battle against fast food – attacking the food instead of reminding the eater to exercise personal responsibility and good choices.
Luckily for foodies everywhere, the preservative battle hasn’t waged on and become that extremely heavy yet. You can still find plenty of preserved foods. Some, of course, you will want to avoid, while others present no problems whatsoever and will actually provide benefits.
Food Preservation Benefits
Unless you’re willing to shove anything into your mouth, even if it’s some moldy, bacteria-laced piece of food, then there aren’t many health benefits to speak of in the food preservation category. But as far as keeping food fresher for longer, staving off ripening and keeping mold and bacteria away, natural food preservatives are a godsend for many.
Let’s speak about some of the natural food preservatives so that you can get a handle on exactly how they benefit you in a good way.
First up, let’s talk about drying. Dehydration is a great way to preserve foods. For fruits and veggies, dehydrating takes out the moisture and hinders the product’s ability to create bacterial and to spoil, while also concentrating nutrients and even the flavor. The end result: healthy and tasty food that will last for years when stored properly.
And how many of us out there love beef jerky and other meats turned to jerky? As mentioned previously, there aren’t “many health benefits” of naturally preserving food, but there are some. Jerky, for example, is almost 100% fat free, full of vitamins and proteins, and makes a fantastic snack on any diet – and that goes for most dehydrated foods.
Pickling foods has long been a preferred preservation method of many. This is done through a solution of vinegar, salt and other spices that not only preserves the pickled food (once called “corning” for meat products), but also add a whole lot of flavor.
Pickled vegetables and meats can provide a huge punch of flavor without having to use a bunch of add-on methods to add calories. So, again, it’s not a very large health benefit but it’s certainly not a disadvantage. All-natural preservation is mostly healthy.
Salt is the enemy of all bacteria out there. Almost every microorganism attracted to your food will not be able to thrive in the presence of salt. Now, because of people conscious about their sodium levels, foods like country ham and salted cod aren’t really preferred. But they’re not necessarily going to create any health problems due to unnatural chemicals used in preservation.
Food Preservation Dangers
This section deals with chemical enchanters and not anything you will find of a natural variety. By using natural preservatives, the benefits speak for themselves. Using artificial preservatives, however, can result in some issues.
Here are some of the more potentially dangerous food preservatives:
Sodium nitrate is used in the preservation/curing of many foods, like hotdogs, sausages and other cured foods you’ll find on the shelves. The purpose of nitrates is to stave off botulism-causing bacteria, but according the U.S. National Toxicology Program (NTP), disease like pancreatic and lung cancer has been attributed to meat consumption containing sodium nitrate.
This is another chemical preservative that does serve a good purpose with the food you eat. It’s a stabilizer used in packaged meals, dry milk, baked goods and other foods. The NTP has found, however, that consumption of this preservative can cause prostate inflammation and tumors in the brain, pancreas and thyroid.
The UK and Canada have banned this food preservative used to strengthen bread dough (stronger gluten structure in the dough means it holds more air and has a better volume – creating a larger-looking loaf of bread with fewer ingredients), but it can still be found in the United States. Potassium Bromate is a carcinogen causing tumors in the kidneys and thyroid.
BHT and BHA
Butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA) and butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT) are preservatives used to prevent oxygenation. This keeps fats from turning rancid and thus extends the shelf life of any food containing fat. BHT ‘s harmful effects are still unproven, but BHA has been shown to directly cause cancer in animals. The two chemicals are similar.