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Food Additives and Preservatives


Have you ever looked at an ingredient label and not know what several of the ingredients were? 

Food preservatives are represented in three categories including antimicrobial (to prevent growth of bacteria, yeasts, and molds), antioxidants (to inhibit oxidation of fats and lipids), and ripening inhibitors (inhibit enzymatic processes that occur after harvest). The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is responsible for regulation of these ingredients and most fall on the “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS) list. 

Per the FDA, "GRAS is an acronym for the phrase Generally Recognized As Safe. Under sections 201(s) and 409 of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (the Act), any substance that is intentionally added to food is a food additive, that is subject to premarket review and approval by FDA, unless the substance is generally recognized, among qualified experts, as having been adequately shown to be safe under the conditions of its intended use, or unless the use of the substance is otherwise excepted from the definition of a food additive.” Therefore, some additives have not had extensive research proving their safety when consumed over extended periods of time.

Preservatives were introduced in the 1970’s for the purpose of reducing food waste, extending shelf life, and preventing spoilage.  They are made from chemicals in order to prevent microorganisms from growing, act as antioxidants, reduce moisture, increase acidity, and prevent the natural ripening process.  Preservatives are extremely helpful in functioning in the above manners, and can also decrease the occurrence of food borne illnesses. However, there are examples of substances that have been included on the GRAS list but later removed because research shows they cause more harm than good. A primary example of this is partially hydrogenated vegetable oils also known as “trans fat”.

Are Preservatives Good or Bad?

Well, both, in my opinion. . . Without preservatives, it is much more likely that we would have higher emergency room visits or deaths from food bourne illness because we expect food to be “good” for longer than it would be without preservatives. However, trans fat had a large negative impact on heart health, and was only found in processed foods.

Most of the food you consume should be preservative-free. These foods will naturally have less ingredients (only one ingredient in many cases), and you’ll also increase the nutrient density of your diet. Choose fresh or frozen fruits and veggies, fresh lean proteins, and whole grains or starches without added seasonings (i.e. whole wheat pasta, brown rice, quinoa, potatoes, dry beans). Add fresh or dried herbs and spices to season foods rather than pre-made seasoning packets. In general, if you are shopping the perimeter of the grocery store, you will naturally reduce the amount of extra ingredients that you take in and improve the nutrition content of your diet.