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.
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?!?
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,, 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.
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.
For 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:
- antimicrobial, to inhibit the growth of bacteria, fungi, and mold
- 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”)
- 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
- 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!
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.
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:
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).
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)
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.
Here’s how the extra ingredients were explained on the front of that lemon juice bottle:
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…
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.
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. (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.”
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?
Apparently 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.
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.
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
- calcium propionate
How about you? In the spirit of baby steps, what might change about your label reading or food purchasing this week?
Answers to “What’s That Food?”
- Oscar Mayer Deli Fresh Rotisserie Seasoned 98% Fat Free Chicken Breast
- 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.”)
- Kraft Caesar Creamy Lite Salad Dressing
Need More Baby Steps?
Here at Kitchen Stewardship, we’ve always been all about the baby steps. But if you’re just starting your real food and natural living journey, sifting through all that we’ve shared here over the years can be totally overwhelming.
That’s why we took the best 10 rookie “Monday Missions” that used to post once a week and made a printable checklist so you can track your progress.
Sign up to get the checklist and weekly challenges and teaching on key topics like meal planning, homemade foods that save the budget (and don’t take too much time), what to cut out of your pantry, and more.