Understanding Preservatives

by Wildermart Team on Feb 13, 2023

Understanding Preservatives

What are preservatives?

Preservatives are either natural or man-made chemicals added to foods to prohibit the growth of bacteria, fungi, etc. A common natural preservative is salt that has been used for years. Vinegar, oil, sugar are also known  However, in modern times, mostly the man-made chemical ones have found their way into all our foods.

Food preservatives are different from food additives. Preservatives are added with the intention of increasing shelf life. Additives are added for flavour, color or taste enhancements. Common additives are colors, acidity regulators, emulsifiers, anti-caking agents, etc. We will talk about these food additives in another blog.

Food preservatives find their way in absolutely any store bought product you may have. Turn around and read the labels. They will usually come with their original chemical name or in a masked code starting with INS or E - followed by a number. They are added in bread, sauce, jam, packaged meats, canned foods, biscuits, chips - everything.

Types of preservatives

As per FSSAI, they have classified preservatives into two categories:

  1. Class I - Natural. Any amount of natural preservatives can be added to food and are hence, not regulated in that sense. These include sugar, oil, dextrose, glucose, etc. SUGAR - mind you. So any amount of sugar can be added to packaged foods without a problem in India.
  2. Class II - Man-made chemicals like benzoic acid, sorbic acid and others.

There are 3 types of man-made chemicals related

  1. Benzoates
  2. Sulphites
  3. Nitrites

These preservatives are usually added to food & personal care products. If you have heard the terms 'paraben-free', 'no sulphates' in your face cream, that's great. Paraben is a benzoate and sulphate is, well, a sulphate. Now the concerning part is that most of us have stopped putting these parabens & sulphates on our faces, but we continue to ingest their equivalents in our food!

Effects of preservatives on your health

Benzoates - This is one of the most commonly added preservatives (Sodium or Potassium). While all preservatives come with their limit of usage, there are some concerns around sodium benzoate even in quantities allowed. One of the main concerns with this is the breakdown into benzene - which is a carcinogen. Commonly, when used in colas, it reacts with the ascorbic acid and converts into benzene. Studies have also showed to have an effect on kids with ADHD.

Nitrites - These are commonly added to packaged meats. Nitrites convert to nitric oxide in meats and react with the protein to turn them into pink/reddish hue. That's why store bought meat is pink - else it will lose color quickly. When subjected to high heat, along with proteins - as in the case of meat - the nitrite breaks into nitrosamine which is a carcinogen. This is the reason why processed meats have been classified as Class I & 2A carcinogen by WHO.

Sodium - One of the key concerns with preservatives is the use of sodium. Most preservatives have sodium in them and therefore increase the sodium content of our food. 500mg is usually required by our body for nerve function. 1tbsp of Himalayan pink salt has 2,200mg sodium. Preservatives have a much larger quantum. This then results in water retention in the body - causing inflammation of cells and increasing the blood flow volume. This then, causes high blood pressure. The kidneys get overworked and malfunction with high quantities of sodium. A very high build up of fluids in the body can be potentially very dangerous.

Killing of gut biome - Have you ever observed the relationship between a not-so-happy person and junk food? Processed food containing all these harsh chemicals in their preservatives kill microbial life - including the one in our gut. Our gut biome is not just responsible for better digestion, but also the production of our happy hormones like serotonin, melatonin.  So preservatives in packaged foods kill our gut flora, making us genuinely unhappy.

So overall, the picture is rather gloomy with preservatives. And that's exactly why we don't qualify them as healthy foods. Be careful - because a lot of 'healthy' foods still contain preservatives & additives. Read your labels to be sure of the health claims.

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