When we step in a supermarket with our grocery list, our general tendency is to direct ourselves towards the shelves of products we are the most familiar with. That is, we always tend to buy the products we know first. However, there is one habit that most of us shoppers don’t have, and which is quite crucial: detecting preservatives in foods. Because we are dealing with synthetic compounds here, it is critical that we limit our intake of foods with very high amounts of preservatives, as they could cause health problems when it comes to excretion.

Why Are Preservatives Used in Foods?

The main reason why preservatives are generally used in foods is to increase the shelf’s life and duration of food products. When food products are packaged, they can easily deteriorate, and this for several reasons: the natural enzymes in those food products can interact and create reactions that could alter the ingredients in the products, they can alter the appearance of the food items (darken the fruits’ skin, soften them, etc.) they could even modify their smell and consistency. In addition, bacteria and other microorganisms can grow, multiply and cause the food products to spoil, even when they are adequately preserved. Henceforth, food preservatives are added to nullify all those chemical processes, prevent the deterioration of food items and preserve their integrity.

Distinguishing the Good From the Bad

Actually, all food preservatives are not harmful. It’s up to the consumers to be vigilant and alert to know what are the food preservatives to avoid are; and at which concentrations. There are few food additives that have been declared safe for consumption by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). On top of the list, we have Ascorbic Acid (better known as Vitamin C). Vitamin C is naturally present in most fruits and vegetables, and when it is added to some cereals and drinks, it contributes to preventing the spoilage of those products. We can also mention Taurine, which is important in heart, brain and muscle function. It is naturally present in red meat, and added as a preservative in several food items. Aspartame also belongs to the list of FDA approved food preservatives. Commonly known as a sugar substitute, aspartame is generally added to food items for that previous function, but also because it is a potent and healthy food preservative.

But despite those few healthy food additives, the majority of chemical compounds that are added to food items on shelves are detrimental to our health. Most of the harmful food additives have the potential to cause allergies, just as some other nutrients would. The difference is, in the case of the food preservatives, the intensity of the reaction will depend on the amount ingested. For instance, the three most commonly used chemical preservatives are: Butylated Hydroxyanisole (BHA) and Sodium Benzoate, which can trigger asthma in susceptible individuals. Nitrites, which are usually present in ham, bacon, sausages (responsible for their red color) can cause a life threatening blood disorder called methemoglobinaemia; when ingested in high qualities.

Artificial colors are also part of the food preservatives. On food labels, they usually begin with FD&C; and are among the top five risky food preservatives, according to Pediatrician Dr. Alan Greene. Added sugars, such as High fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) and Corn Syrup are also dangerous to some extent, as they can contribute to obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular diseases.

Lastly, Monosodium Glutamate (MSG), which is used for food flavoring purposes, can inhibit the naturally occurring growth hormone and can cause obesity as well. Moreover, overconsumption can cause some other reactions such as headaches, wheezing or rashes, particularly in susceptible individuals.

How to Avoid Food Preservatives

Consumers and buyers need to be very careful when purchasing their products. We need to pay a special attention to products labels in order to identify what are the chemicals present in the products. Of course, buyers are not expected to sit down for an entire hour in front of a supermarket shelf, analyzing each ingredient one by one! But undoubtedly, a preliminary knowledge of what food preservatives are healthy and which ones are not would surely help!




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