Preservatives are food additives that have been around since humans began preparing food. Perhaps the best-known preservative is salt. But while they are certainly useful to keep food safe by preventing mould forming, some modern-day chemical preservatives can have unintended side effects on our health.
Some food additives are even listed as possible carcinogens by the World Health Organisation, yet manufacturers continue to use them as they are more concerned with taste and shelf life than with what’s good for the consumer.
When I think about what motivated me to start Wholesome Child and what continues to drive me to keep making changes in my own family’s diet, the diets of my clients and those that I reach through my website, it’s that I believe we all deserve to eat real food.
To do this, we need to be informed so we can make the right decisions when faced with multiple options. Many of us don’t have the time to cook every meal from scratch and we have to rely on a certain amount of packaged food. My ultimate aim is to help you navigate the supermarket shelves to ensure you choose the most wholesome options available, free of the nasties that are present in many foods.
With that in mind, here are a few of the main preservatives to avoid:
1. BHA and BHT
There is ongoing debate about the safety of BHA (Butylated hydroxyanisole) and BHT (Butylated hydroxytoluene), both petroleum-derived antioxidants commonly used to prevent rancidity in fats and oils. Although BHA, which is a heat-stable additive used in baked products, is a suspected carcinogen and banned in the UK (in instant foods), in parts of Europe and in Japan, the US Food and Drug administration categorises it as GRAS (generally regarded as safe).
Vegetable oils, margarine, spreadable butter, biscuits, cakes, cereal, pastries, sweets, chewing gum, milk powder, frozen dinners, bread, wraps, frozen French fries.
Suspected carcinogen, gastrointestinal disturbances, aggression, hyperactivity, mood disturbances (depression, insomnia), asthma, eczema, dermatitis, hives, rashes.
- Avoid products that contain vegetable oils.
- Choose foods that say 'preservative free' on the pack or organic packaged foods as they contain little or no synthetic colours or preservatives.
- Look for products containing ascorbic acid (300). Products use ascorbic acid or vitamin C, a far safer antioxidant than the above-mentioned ones and you’ll also find it in other products lining the supermarket shelves too.
- Another safer antioxidant option is citric acid although it may provoke mild symptoms in sensitive individuals.
- Note - Unless a product is certified organic, both ascorbic acid and citric acid may be derived from GM sources.
Sorbic acid and its calcium, sodium and potassium salts (collectively referred to as sorbates) are another group of preservatives used to inhibit the growth of mould. Derived from petroleum they can provoke an allergic reaction in sensitive individuals and are on the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital’s Elimination Diet’s 'to avoid' list. Sorbates are banned in foods for infants and two studies have found them to have the potential to disrupt our DNA.
Orange juice, cheese, pickles, yoghurt, dips, dried meats, soft drinks, ice-cream, baked goods.
Headaches and migraines, asthma, allergic reactions (rhinitis, skin irritation), hyperactivity; gastrointestinal upset.
Ascorbic acid (300); Sodium ascorbate (301); Calcium ascorbate (302); Potassium ascorbate (303); Ascorbyl palmitate (304).
- Prepare home-made fruit sorbets, ice-creams and chocolate mousse.
- Make your own fresh squeezed orange juice.
- Choose natural yoghurts, which contain no additives, or make your own coconut yoghurt easily at home.
Derived from propionic acid, calcium propionate (282) is most commonly known as the “bread preservative”. It’s often added to supermarket breads and other commercially baked goods to prevent mildew and bacterial growth (now you know why some loaves can last for up to 10 days outside the fridge). Australia has one of the highest permitted amounts of propionic acid. A report on a controlled trial co-authored by Sue Dengate in the Journal of Paediatrics and Child Health in 2002 stated that although calcium propionate may have little to no side effects for the average person, irritability, restlessness, inattention and sleep disturbance in some children can be attributed to this preservative being consumed daily in their diet.
Pre-packaged breads and wraps, cheese, pasta, bakery products, breadcrumbs.
As food intolerance expert Sue Dengate states, “If you wanted to create a nation of underperforming children, you could hardly do better than to add a preservative known to cause learning difficulties to an everyday staple food.”
- Visit an organic bakery or local bakery and ask if they use any form of propionic acid (including cultured whey, wheat or dextrose in their bread).
- Choose freshly baked bread at your local supermarket as it's more likely to not contain propionates (always ask before purchasing).
- Prepare your own baked goods at home using Wholesome Child’s gluten-free flour recipe available in the book.
- Beware of wraps. In my Lunch Box Solutions workshop I show many examples of wraps that have nearly as many preservatives as ingredients. Most contain 280 or 282.
RELATED: 9 Foods You Should Never Eat For Lunch
Benzoates, also known as flowers of benzoin, phenlycarboxylic acid, benzene carboxylic acid or carboxybenzene, are one of the oldest preservatives. They are prohibited in foods for infants. Benzoates (especially sodium benzoate 211) are another asthma-causing preservative. Sodium benzoate, when combined with vitamin C, forms benzene. Benzene is a carcinogen and is known to contribute to the formation of many different types of cancer. However, the FDA states that food products containing both vitamin C and sodium benzoate express benzene levels that are below the dangerous limit.
Cordials, orange juice, vegetable juice, soft drinks, cheese, yoghurt, ice-cream, sauces, toppings, baked goods, cough medicines, ointments.
Asthma, headaches, hyperactivity, skin irritation, stomach upsets.
- Avoid soft drinks, cordials and commercial orange juices that contain preservatives.
- Replace soft drinks and cordials with water and an occasional smoothie.
Substitute store-bought tomato sauce for a homemade version. Make large batches to use as a base for pizza, stews and pasta sauces.
Sulphites are the most common preservatives in foods. Sulphur dioxide, the synthetic form, is used to extend shelf life and protect food from bacteria. They are used to preserve colour and moisture in dried fruit. They’ve been banned in the US in meat since 1959 but can still be found in other foods like frozen French fries. In 1984 Australian researchers found that more than 65 per cent of asthmatic children were sensitive to sulphites, and in 1999 the World Health Organisation estimated that 20-30 per cent of asthmatic children react to sulphites. Sensitivity is dependent on how much a child is exposed to sulphur dioxide or sulphites from all sources over a short period of time.
Dried fruit (especially dried apricots and raisins), cordials, sausages, hamburger patties, rissoles, fruit juice, soft drinks, grapes, processed dried vegetables, deli meats, baked goods, glucose syrup, molasses, pickles, garlic powder.
Asthma, eczema, skin rashes, headaches, behaviour disturbances.
- Make sure dried apricots, other dried fruits and any other common sulphite-containing foods are labelled ‘sulphite free’.
- Dried apricots, cordial, sausages and hamburger patties are the greatest source of sulphites for children and should be avoided as much as possible.
- Substitute store-bought potato fries for sweet potato wedges or polenta chips.
6. Nitrates and nitrites
They might seem like an easy protein hit but most smoked and cured foods like ham and sausages contain nitrates and nitrites to extend shelf life, preserve colour and prevent bacterial growth. These preservatives have been proven to convert into carcinogenic nitrosamines in the body. According to the American Cancer Society, an increased risk of stomach cancer is seen in people with diets that contain large amounts of smoked foods, salted fish and meat, and pickled vegetables. Nitrates and nitrites can be converted by certain bacteria, such as H pylori, into compounds that have been shown to cause stomach cancer in lab animals. There is also a reported increased risk of bowel cancer.
Processed meats like ham, salami, roast beef, chicken, turkey, bacon, sausages, frankfurters, smoked fish, pickled vegetables.
Recurrent infections, headaches, irritable bowel symptoms, stomach cancer, bowel cancer.
- Minimise your consumption of processed and cured meat products such as hot dogs, sausages and cold cuts.
- Visit a reputable organic butcher and ask for preservative-free sausages and other deli meats. Or make your own meatball patties with a quality preservative-free mince.
- Choose organic salmon or other forms of smoked fish which say ‘nitrite or nitrate free’.
- Read labels. It’s not uncommon for nitrates and nitrites to be found in canned or frozen vegetables or quiches that contain bacon or packaged seafood.
To learn more about Mandy Sacher please visit the Wholesome Child website. Her book 'Wholesome Child: A Complete Nutrition Guide and Cookbook' is available to purchase online and through iTunes.