Human beings have known about the importance of preserving food for a long time, even before the discovery of fire. Preservation of food without the use of additives has taken many forms, which we have all but perfected to date. Drying, freeze drying, freezing, vacuum packing, canning, microwaving or irradiating, pickling, salting, smoking, and preservation in syrup, alcohol, and sugar are all effective nonchemical means of increasing the shelf life of foods.
All food preservation is broken down into three categories:
- Antimicrobial—prevent the growth of yeasts, molds, and bacteria
- Antioxidants—slow the oxidation of fats and lipids
- Ripening inhibition—slow the enzymatic processes of ripening after harvest
Food preservatives are essential for many reasons. They are used to:
- Maintain consistency and texture of foods
- Improve or retain nutritional properties
- Delay spoilage
- Enhance flavors, textures, and color
Recently, people have begun to question the use and value of food preservatives in the American diet. The truth is many food preservatives are not only helpful, but also healthful. For example, ascorbic acid is vitamin C. Understanding the names and roles of food preservatives makes reading ingredient lists on food labels less confusing. A comprehensive and helpful table that lists and rates all additives is available at http://www.cspinet.org/reports/chemcuisine.htm#Additives%20rated.
Before a food additive or preservative is incorporated into the American food supply, it must receive a generally recognized-as-safe (GRAS) status. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is responsible for establishing use, amounts, and guidelines for these GRAS additives. If a food preservative is deemed unfit for GRAS status, a moratorium for that product is issued, with further testing possibly implemented.
The most common chemical additives include:
- Benzoates, such as sodium benzoate and benzoic acid
- Nitrites, such as sodium nitrite
- Sulfites, such as sulfur dioxide
- Sorbates, such as sodium sorbate and potassium sorbate
Despite the complicated names, all of the above additives are GRAS and essential to our food supply. Of course, most foods are best eaten fresh out of the garden, but if a garden is not available and one is going to need to navigate the supermarket aisles, it is best to know about preservatives. Understanding our food supply may take learning some complicated names, but it is worth it to feel confident that the ingredients that you are eating are safe.
Center for Science in the Public Interest. Food additives. Available at: http://www.cspinet.org/reports/chemcuisine.htm. Accessed January 15, 2009.
Rung International. Food additives: preservatives. Available at: http://www.foodadditivesworld.com/preservatives.html. Accessed January 15, 2009.
US Food and Drug Administration. A fresh look at food preservatives. Available at: http://www.cfsan.fda.gov/~dms/fdpreser.html. Accessed January 15, 2009.
Review Date 2/09