Kitchen Stewardship | A Baby Steps Approach to Balanced Nutrition

Monday Mission: Cut Out the Preservatives

March 10th, 2014 · 24 Comments · Monday Missions

Your mission, if you choose to accept, is to learn the names of some of the most common and dangerous preservatives and be on the watch for them in the foods you eat.

Cut Out the Preservatives


Chances are if you’re reading this blog, you don’t have a ton of products in your home with ingredients labels at all. But even if you have pared down the processed food considerably already (if you haven’t, all the better to learn the lesson today), it’s still worthwhile to know what to watch out for on things like cottage cheese, lemon juice, canned beans, and other seemingly benign food products (along with of course regular old processed foods, which can range in ingredients from acceptable to downright scary).

For example, let’s look at a major brand of cottage cheese:

cultured pasteurized skim milk, whey, food starch, salt, potato maltodextrin, calcium phosphate, artificial color, mono- and diglyercides, guar gum, xanthan gum, artificial flavor and vitamins.

Cottage cheese really only needs milk, enzymes and salt, in case you were wondering. So what is all that other stuff?

This post is sponsored by TriLight Health, a company whose natural herbal remedies don’t include preservatives…a welcome find.

Challenge Your Brain: What’s That Food?!?

Packaged Cereal Preservatives

(photo source)

Here’s some more label-reading practice. I was having too much fun on a big food processing company’s website and wanted to include seven choices, but my new site editor (whose job it is to make me more succinct!) said it was too many. ;) (Longtime readers are grinning right now, right?) Anyway…

Let’s make a guessing game of it – as in, “Name that food!”

Mystery Food #1:

WHEY, MILK, MILK PROTEIN CONCENTRATE, MODIFIED FOOD STARCH, SODIUM CITRATE, MALTODEXTRIN, GELATIN, SALT, MILKFAT, SODIUM PHOSPHATE, CALCIUM PHOSPHATE, WHEY PROTEIN CONCENTRATE, SORBIC ACID AS A PRESERVATIVE, CHEESE CULTURES, OLEORESIN PAPRIKA (COLOR), ENZYMES, ANNATTO (COLOR).

Mystery Food #2:

CHICKEN BREAST, WATER, MODIFIED CORNSTARCH, CONTAINS LESS THAN 2% OF SALT, SUGAR, NATURAL ROTISSERIE SEASONING (YEAST EXTRACT, SALT, NATURAL FLAVOR), SODIUM PHOSPHATES, CARRAGEENAN, SODIUM PROPIONATE, SODIUM DIACETATE, POTASSIUM CHLORIDE, SODIUM BENZOATE, LEMON JUICE SOLIDS, SODIUM ASCORBATE, SODIUM NITRITE. COATED WITH PAPRIKA, BLACK PEPPER, GARLIC POWDER, ONION POWDER, THYME.

Mystery Food #3:

WATER, CORN SYRUP, HYDROGENATED VEGETABLE OIL* (COCONUT AND PALM KERNEL OILS), HIGH FRUCTOSE CORN SYRUP, LESS THAN TWO PERCENT OF SODIUM CASEINATE (FROM MILK), NATURAL AND ARTIFICIAL FLAVOR, MODIFIED FOOD STARCH, XANTHAN AND GUAR GUMS, POLYSORBATE 60, POLYSORBATE 65, SORBITAN MONOSTEARATE, SODIUM HYDROXIDE, BETA CAROTENE (COLOR)
*ADDS A NEGLIGIBLE AMOUNT OF FAT.

Mystery Food #4:

WATER, VINEGAR, SUGAR, VEGETABLE OILS (CANOLA OIL, EXTRA VIRGIN OLIVE OIL), MODIFIED FOOD STARCH, PARMESAN AND ROMANO MADE FROM COW’S MILK CHEESES (PART-SKIM MILK, CHEESE CULTURE, SALT, ENZYMES), CONTAINS LESS THAN 2% OF SEA SALT, LEMON JUICE CONCENTRATE, SPICE, NATURAL FLAVOR, ANCHOVIES, BUTTERMILK, GARLIC*, AUTOLYZED YEAST EXTRACT, PHOSPHORIC ACID, SALT, XANTHAN GUM, CITRIC ACID, ONIONS*, MOLASSES, POLYSORBATE 60, CORN SYRUP, DEFATTED SOY FLOUR, CULTURED CREAM, SOYBEAN OIL, LACTIC ACID, DISODIUM INOSINATE, DISODIUM GUANYLATE, LEMON JUICE, CARAMEL COLOR, TAMARIND, ARTIFICIAL FLAVOR, SOY LECITHIN (EMULSIFIER), SOUR CREAM*, WITH POTASSIUM SORBATE AND CALCIUM DISODIUM EDTA AS PRESERVATIVES.
*DRIED.

If your belly feels a little heavy after reading all that, you’re not alone. I’m having second thoughts about whether I should have tortured you with those lists or not!

Even when it comes to all the long words, I couldn’t always tell you what’s a filler or thickener, what’s a preservative, and what is adding flavor…nor could I tell you which ones are really harmful vs. just a little weird, or somewhere in between.

It’s time to deepen our label-reading education today.

Better Than a Box bookFor recipes to make three of these four mystery foods and more, check out my eBook Better Than a Box! It includes 35 Remake Resources to replace the packaged goods in your pantry.

Answers to “What’s That Food?” at the end of the post.

What Ingredients are Actually Preservatives?

Although it’s obvious that food processing companies add plenty of ingredients to foods that aren’t available in your kitchen, today we’re just going to figure out which big words are preservatives specifically. I find it a bit humorous that the ingredients lists tend to explain “to preserve freshness” or “as a preservative” on some of those items, but so many other unintelligible words go without explanation.

As it turns out, food processing companies generally add preservatives for one of three main reasons:

  1. antimicrobial, to inhibit the growth of bacteria, fungi, and mold
  2. antioxidant, to inhibit oxidation (oxidation is the process that turns an apple brown, when cells are exposed to oxygen – in fats, it causes rancidity, and many oxidized foods become carcinogenic – the opposite of “antioxidants”)
  3. to preserve color, flavor and consistent texture which could be related to numbers one and two.

Here’s a list of food preservatives you’re likely to see on ingredients lists, both in food and personal products:

  • ascorbic acid
  • citric acid
  • sodium benzoate
  • calcium propionate
  • vitamin E
  • BHA and BHT
  • sodium nitrate
  • sulfites
  • TBHQ
  • EDTA
  • parabens
  • I may have missed some…if you know of additives that are used as preservatives, please share in the comments and I can update the post!

imageSponsor shoutout: TriLight Health sells painstakingly made herbal tinctures that don’t contain parabens or any other preservative or artificial ingredient. When you’re trying to keep  your family healthy, you want to make sure of course that you’re not putting scary ingredients in their bodies! Our favorite blends are Lympha Rub, Scout Out and NR Glow.

Reading Between the Well-Preserved Lines

It’s one thing to memorize a list of words and target them while reading ingredients – but do we need to avoid all these preservatives? Let’s dig into the research.

Processed Lunchmeat

(photo source)

First, it’s possible that artificial preservatives themselves may have a negative effect on food safety:

“A 2010 study by Swedish researchers found that when a small amount of a common preservative was added to different types of pork meat, it increased the amount of toxins produced by the bacteria in food. The toxins from food microorganisms are generally responsible for making you sick when you acquire a food-borne illness.” (source)

Experts also question the cumulative effect, on which there isn’t a very deep body of research. In other words, if we eat lots and lots of preservatives in our food, what is the effect on our health? Luckily many Americans are currently participating in this unregulated research simply by consuming vast amounts of processed foods daily. (Yes, that’s sarcasm if you don’t know me very well.)

Many preservatives have particular health risks explored in major research studies, as follows:

ascorbic acid

This is just Vitamin C. There really aren’t health risks, especially in normal food quantities. (1, 2, 3) However, ascorbic acid is synthesized with the use of GMO corn, and a new process has been recently developed that shortens the production time and is also derived more directly from GM organisms (see here for more or here for an interesting story on Vitamin C supplements).


citric acid

Often confused with Vitamin C, citric acid is generally seen as neither good nor bad for you. The risk is that it’s often made using genetically modified molds on GMO corn. Some people are very sensitive to it. (1, 2, 3, 4)



lemon juice ingredients label

sodium benzoate

Found in many sodas and fruit juices, even the lemon juice above which was able to be marked “100% lemon juice” even though it has FIVE ingredients, only one of which is “lemon juice.” Seriously, labeling laws, U.S. government??? (This photo is what inspired me to start looking into this stuff for a Monday Mission – and I now buy lemon juice from Costco with no weird ingredients.)

Researchers have proven that when sodium benzoate is mixed with Vitamin C (ascorbic acid) it creates benzene, a known carcinogen. In fact, a handful of soda producers had to reformulate their beverages in 2006-7 after they were found to have unacceptable levels of benzene in the finished product.

Sodium benzoate also has been shown to increase hyperactivity in children via a 2007 Lancet study. (1, 2)

Here’s how the extra ingredients were explained on the front of that lemon juice bottle:

lemon juice preservatives

calcium propionate

Appears to be safe (1) and I also don’t see it as often as many of the other preservatives on this list anyway.

EDIT: A commenter shared this link which classifies calcium proponate as a neurotoxin. No good! So…the jury’s out on this one. Glad I don’t see it often…


vitamin E (alpha tocopheral)

Appears to be safe (1, 2)


BHA (Butylated Hydroxyanisole) and BHT (Butylated Hydroxytoluene)

Both are classified with GRAS status (Generally Recognized as Safe) by the FDA, but research by the National Toxicology Program found potential carcinogenicity in BHA and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services considers BHA to be “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen.”

A number of studies  linked BHT to both increased and decreased risk of cancer, and it’s stored in human fat.It’s also easily substituted with other things, so if I was in charge of the world, I’d avoid this one just in case.

Sometimes we don’t know what we don’t know until it’s too late (like when the FDA recently removed GRAS status from trans fat after its approved use in foods for decades. The trouble is that once GRAS status is achieved, the FDA no longer is required to run any tests/studies/evaluations on the product unless petitioned to do so by other organizations). (1, 2, 3, 4)

BHA and BHT are found in many packaged foods to extend their shelf life, particularly high fat foods, and even in the packaging itself on cereals and crackers.


sodium nitrate/nitrite

Used to prevent bacterial growth in cured meats (and allow the curing process to be done faster, same old story), sodium nitrate has actually been in use in food processing for over 100 years. So long, in fact, that the rate of gastric cancers, which was the most potent killer of all cancers before 1930, dropped dramatically when Americans reduced their intake of sodium nitrate (both because refrigeration allowed us to eat less cured meats and because producers began using less to do the job).

Eighty years later, most of the bacon, pepperoni, ham, etc. that you can buy still uses the same chemical, even though it’s been linked pretty conclusively to heart disease and cancer, including gastric cancers but also brain tumors, leukemia and nose and throat tumors in some children. And how often do we reward children with a pepperoni pizza party???

Sodium nitrate is often the ingredient on the label, and it breaks down into sodium nitrite, which helps hot dogs, etc. retain their bright coloring instead of becoming an unappetizing gray. Perhaps the solution is just to use opaque packaging. Smile  (1, 2, 3)

Consumers should also beware of “natural” products that use celery juice or celery powder to cure meats instead of nitrates, since they may have more nitrites than their chemical counterparts.  I wrote a little about this in “Are the New Natural Lunchmeats Real-washed?” and more (with a rebuttal that nitrites are really a problem for you) in “Evil Red Meat and Bacon Redeemed.”



Apricots with Sulfites Labeling

sulfites

Most commonly thought of as being in wine, sulfites are actually found in dried fruits in much, much higher quantities than most wines. They’re used to preserve color and prevent wine from spoiling – but organic wines don’t include sulfites, and I’ve never really heard of one going bad, have you?

Organic dried fruits also don’t use sulfites, and you’ll often notice the words “unsulfured” on the packaging. The fruit itself will generally be darker than its conventional counterpart, and many find the colors less appealing. Below are both apricots – striking difference, eh?



Dried Apricots - Sulphured and UnsulphuredApparently when drying fruit, Vitamin A and C are lost in some pretty serious quantities. Exposing the fruit to sulfur inhibits that loss. Lemon juice can help home-dried fruit retain its color; I wonder if it also retains nutrient loss. Considering that sodium bisulfate (see lemon juice bottle, above) is listed as a “chemical hazard” by the CDC, I’d use fresh lemon juice and skip the sulfured dried fruit when possible. I also enjoy Made in Nature brand dried apricots – there are some in my pantry now for when I need a quick snack!

Sulfites have had GRAS status from the FDA since the status was invented in the 1950s, but since it’s possible that 1 in 100 people may have severe allergic reactions to sulfites (more common in folks with asthma), labeling laws state that sulfites must be disclosed on food and drug products. They are not permitted to be used on meat, fresh produce, or foods that are a major source of Vitamin B1 since sulfites destroy it.

One source listed raisins as very high in sulfites, but I polled my readers on Facebook last week, and nobody’s raisins, organic or not, included sulfate-forming ingredients…except the golden raisins. So if your dried fruit is light in color, it’s more likely to have a sulfite problem; if it’s already dark like raisins or prunes, you may be able to get away with the conventional stuff without preservatives anyway. These organic Woodstock Farms Raisins look delicious and say they are unsulphured.

Sulfites can be listed as sulfur dioxide, sodium sulfate, sodium and potassium bisulfites, and metabisulfites. (1, 2, 3, 4, 5)

TBHQ

Related to BHA and BHT, TBHQ (Tert-Butylhydroquinone) is sometimes seen as safe but has also increased the incidence of tumors in rats. It is approved for use in Europe (many additives approved in the U.S. are not overseas) and has gotten a bad rep at times.


EDTA

One of those terms I’ve always wondered how to pronounce. Can you just say “edta” like it’s a name? It stands for ethylenediamine tetraacetic acid and its job is to trap metal impurities, which would cause rancidity in food and personal products. It is deemed safe and is actually used as a treatment for lead poisoning and a chelating agent. I see “calcium disodium EDTA” most often on labels, and I think all this information applies to any form of EDTA. (1, 2, 3)


The Bottom Line

We’ve all heard that we should eat processed foods only if they contain five ingredients or less and that we shouldn’t eat things we can’t pronounce. Clearly the lists of ingredients I shared above break all the rules…but what if you just want some ice cream and don’t own an ice cream maker? If we understand what the ingredients are, at least we can make an informed decision or take a risk.

When it comes to preservatives, some are more dangerous than others, it seems. From now on, I’ll do my best to keep my distance from:

  • nitrites and nitrates
  • BHA and BHT
  • sodium benzoate
  • parabens (hormone disruptors)

I’ll choose not to worry about:

  • vitamin E

And I’ll consider carefully but perhaps consume:

  • ascorbic acid
  • citric acid
  • TBHQ
  • calcium propionate
  • sulfites

How about you? In the spirit of baby steps, what might change about your label reading or food purchasing this week?

Take a moment to thank our sponsor, TriLight Health, for bringing you this body of research (hours worth, believe me!) at no cost to you.

Answers to “What’s That Food?”

  1. Velveeta
  2. Oscar Mayer Deli Fresh Rotisserie Seasoned 98% Fat Free Chicken Breast
  3. Cool Whip Whipped Topping “Free” (actual “milk” or “cream” doesn’t show up in the first 4 ingredients of the regular version, either, only in “extra creamy.”)
  4. Kraft Caesar Creamy Lite Salad Dressing

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If you missed the last Monday Mission, click here.

Kitchen Stewardship is dedicated to balancing God’s gifts of time, health, earth and money.  If you feel called to such a mission, read more at Mission, Method, and Mary and Martha Moments.

Disclosure: There are affiliate links in this post to Amazon and Vitacost from which I will earn some commission if you make a purchase. This post was sponsored. See my full disclosure statement here.

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24 Comments so far ↓

  • Tammy

    My mom used to make apricot turnovers for my dad (and his carpool buddy) when they worked nights to give her something to do. She stopped because she kept noticing that it was hard for her to breathe after making them. An episode of “Good Eats” many years later brought that to light and explained why she had that problem. I don’t care for apricots, but I would not make anything for my husband with apricots because I know that I am allergic to sulfur and have a tendency toward asthma. If sulfur does not have an affect on you, it’s probably a non-issue. For those of us who do, it can be a serious issue.

    I was glad that I got 3 out of 4 of your “Guess that item” right. I could not figure out #3. :-)

    Thank you for sharing. I will share with some folks who are looking at reducing additives in foods to address behavioral issues that may be linked to foods.

    Katie Kimball @ Kitchen Stewardship Reply:

    Wow, Tammy, just after making them, not even eating them!? That’s pretty intense. Poor mom! I had fun choosing cryptic ingredients for ‘guess that food’ hee hee! :) Katie

  • Erin

    I used Tri-Light after getting a coupon code with a book bundle I bought and I have been very pleased! I bought an herbal mixture to help me fall asleep and I have to say that it works just as well as the Tylenol PM I was occasionally taking but of course I can feel much better about it! And I’m pregnant now and my midwife approves. Just thought I’d write a little plug for the sponsor :)

    Katie Kimball @ Kitchen Stewardship Reply:

    That’s awesome to hear, Erin, as I’ve never tried that blend – thanks for sharing! :) Katie

  • Liz

    What an informative article – thanks for breaking it all down.

  • Amber

    We really like bacon. Is it possible to get it without nitrates? I’ve been buying the hormel brand preserved in celery juice instead of nitrates, but I think you are saying that it is actuallly worse for people. Does your family eat bacon?

    Katie Kimball @ Kitchen Stewardship Reply:

    Amber,
    I love bacon too! :( We do eat it, occasionally, usually from our local farmer. I wish the meat market made it the “best” way, the long, slow cure, but they do the celery juice thing too. I decided I just can’t freak out about it, I guess…but it’s tricky! Katie

  • Diva Goes Organic

    I tend to avoid preservatives like the plague, although it’s nice to know some are reasonable in a pinch. After reading some information from Food Babe, I still don’t ever feel comfortable consuming TBHQ. I hate that ascorbic acid is most likely derived from GMO corn. I do occasionally buy items that contain that. I wonder if it makes a difference if the product is organic?

    Katie Kimball @ Kitchen Stewardship Reply:

    D,
    I looked for info on TBHQ from Food Babe but couldn’t really find a research-based post, just that it’s in Chick-fil-A and she didn’t like it, but not why.

    Organic might not make a difference with ascorbic acid, because they don’t have to disclose when it’s just grown on GM corn (or something like that). I bet if you click through to the sources from that section you’ll find your answer.
    :) Katie

    Diva Goes Organic Reply:

    I guess I’ll continue avoiding preservatives, but I won’t feel quite as bad for occasionally sliding on some of these ;) Thanks for breaking down the good, bad, and the ugly.

  • casey

    Wine does go bad, even the non-organic ones so I would guess it doesn’t have anything to do with the added sulfites.

    Katie Kimball @ Kitchen Stewardship Reply:

    Casey,
    So you mean there’s “aged wine” and “wine that just got TOO old?” ;) Katie

    AshleyB Reply:

    I think it only really happens when a bottle is open, like if you’d canned something but didn’t eat it within a reasonable amout of time after unsealing the jar :)

    casey Reply:

    yup. there is a ‘prime time’ to drink wine depending on how it is made. Some wines need to be drunk fairly soon after processing and some need to ‘age’. I forget exactly why I think it has to do with the type of grape used and the fermentation process. (My SIL worked for wineries before she had kids).
    My family never has leftover wine so I’m not sure how long a bottle lasts once opened, but they do go bad even when sealed and sometimes you just get a ‘bad bottle’. Where do you think red wine vinegar comes from?

  • Brenda

    I am wondering what you think about sodium nitrate and ham. I go back and forth on this issue. Easter is coming up and I am not sure what to serve! I usually do ham but not sure where to get it and go from a little won’t hurt you to freaking out about it containing sodium nitrate! I asked a local farmer who sells pork (and generally uses good practices) about if their ham would have sodium nitrate in it to cure it. They said that in Iowa it is the law to cure it with sodium nitrate but that they use as small amount as they can. What do you think? Is it safe? Are there ham roasts out there that don’t have sodium nitrate? Any other suggestions for serving for EAster?? I also heard once that it is safer if you eat it with citrus???
    Any help would be appreciated! Thanks!
    Brenda

    Katie Kimball @ Kitchen Stewardship Reply:

    Brenda,
    I’ve not heard the citrus thing to be honest. ?? I can get ham made without nitrates here, although it might have the celery juice thing going on (can’t remember right now). Honestly, for a once-a-year tradition at Easter, especially since some are saying sodium nitrate is okay, AND you’ve got a farmer saying they use as little as possible…personally, I’d enjoy the ham and the family dinner. :) Our bodies can handle some junk, you know – I just try to cut down on junk most of the time so my body/my kids’ bodies are stronger when we do eat junk on holidays and stuff.
    :) Katie

  • Vikki K

    I can’t believe calcium propionate is getting a free pass here…. But maybe it isn’t used as often in the US? http://fedup.com.au/factsheets/additive-and-natural-chemical-factsheets/280-283-propionic-acid-and-its-salts-the-bread-preservative

    Katie Kimball @ Kitchen Stewardship Reply:

    Vikki,
    My research didn’t take me that far…but I’m glad you shared this link! I just updated the post with the info and demoted calcium proponate to the “iffy” list. Thank you so much for your help! :) Katie

    Vikki K Reply:

    No problems. We avoid it like the plague.

  • Grace S.

    Thanks for the list ! We try to avoid as many preservatives as we can and since I have to make much of our food from scratch due to allergies, we avoid most of them. I am concerned about ascorbic acid as my girls are allergic to corn. Are all supplements of vitamin c made from corn as well?

    Katie Kimball @ Kitchen Stewardship Reply:

    Grace,
    One of the sources on the ascorbic acid and/or citric acid boxes talked about supplements specifically. I think unfortunately they might be – not necessarily actually CORN, but grown on corn or something? You’ll want to Google it a little yourself since it’s pretty important that you hit it correctly….

    Good luck! :) Katie

  • Sangeetha

    About EDTA. No, you don’t pronounce it as if it were a name. You say it all out. But when you’re a chemist, you get used to saying it really fast, so that it doesn’t take any more time than saying it like Edna. This is how it goes and say it quickly – eedeeteeai. Did you guess? I am a biochemist. Used to use EDTA to quench enzyme reactions. Yes, metal-dependent enzymes. It chelates metal ions pretty strongly and kills activity. I would be a little wary of letting it near my body’s metalloenzymes, which are many many. It of course, is effective in removing heavy metal ions as well, but when the cost of having the heavy metals in the body is higher than losing a few other metal ions at the same time, EDTA to the rescue.

    Katie Kimball @ Kitchen Stewardship Reply:

    Whoa, that’s pretty intense. Soooo…you’d let EDTA in your body if you were filled with heavy metals already but not, say, in everyday food? Just clarifying. ;) Sounds like of like something that belongs in a lab…

    Thanks! :) Katie

  • Abi Craig

    Wow! I appreciate the time and research on a topic I often wonder about. We don’t eat a lot of packaged/processed things, but I like to know what I’m considering when I do make a purchase. Thanks for making it easy to read and simple understand.

Welcome!  Meet Katie.

I embrace butter. I make homemade yogurt. I eat traditional real food – plants and animals that God created, not products of plants where food scientists work. Here at Kitchen Stewardship, I share how I strive to be a good steward of my family's nutrition, the environment, and our budget, all without spending every second in the kitchen. Learn more about the mission of KS here.

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