“Our product doesn’t contain preservatives” – proudly flaunts on every second package in the supermarket. As a food technologist and chemist, I always think: “Well, well, we have found something to be proud of.“
Let’s look at preservatives from the point of view of chemistry as a science. Are they so dangerous and unacceptable in the lineup? Let’s start with the elementary truths.
Why Are Preservatives Used?
Not a single food supplement with the E code is actually put into food just to put it. Every supplement has a function.
Some, for example, inhibit fat oxidation. And they are proudly called antioxidants. Others create the structure of the product, prevent it from stratifying and looking unappetizing. We call them stabilizers and emulsifiers. Preservatives are also not dangerous substances. They are designed to protect our food from those who want to eat it. Namely, from microorganisms. Yes, our food is attractive to them too. Bacteria, molds, and the toxins they produce are all things we wouldn’t want to find in food, right?
In order to prevent the food from spoiling ahead of time, we use preservatives. It is important to clarify that these are substances that will harm our microscopic friends but not harm ourselves. Otherwise, what’s the use of them?
Nobody “pours chemicals” beyond measure. Because:
- A – supplements cost money, and in industries, they know how to count.
- B – there is a certain safe dosage for each supplement.
There is no point in exceeding it. First, you can easily spoil the taste of the product. Secondly, if we know that substance X works well when adding both 0.1% and 0.3%, then we will add 0.1%. Like the old ad: “Why pay more?” It is not fools that work at the factories, as “experts” are trying to expose.
Most often, articles about how everything is bad and how they put GMOs in sausages are not written by food experts and people from the industry. And those who have not seen the production in the eyes and do not know what standards are applied there and how the quality control system works. Most likely, such “authors” remembered chemistry for the last time in school.
Alas, inaccurate “horror stories” and myths about food are common. It is sold well. People are more receptive to frightening and disturbing information. “We are being bullied,” “nothing can be eaten,” “industrial food is dangerous.” Often, materials about food technologies and additives are generally made using the copy-paste method. Pull-on more terrible facts, a mound of clever terms – and that’s it, success is guaranteed.
Therefore, it seems so important to me to talk about the food industry from the inside. In this, I see the task of the blog. How does it actually work? What and why do we add to products? What are we referring to, and what is scientifically proven? Information without sources should be taken extremely critically. And always ask the question: “What is the author leaning on now? On their own speculation or on data and facts? “
This brings us to the most important point about scary E-s in food.
All supplements that have been assigned an E-code are actually researched, tested, and proven to be safe. Yes, this goes against what they tell us on TV, in the media, and in fashion blogs. “Avoid food chemicals, especially E-s.” As a chemist, I always sigh: Yes, we ourselves are chemistry. We are made up of chemicals. All substances in the Universe are of a chemical nature. There is no getting away from this. And if you are offered a product “without chemicals,” then we are talking, at least, about a matter that has not been studied by science! Do you really want to eat THIS?
Our fears and lack of knowledge are densely mixed here. In my blog, I regularly talk about chemophobia and how it prevents us from living in peace. Hemophobia is an irrational fear of any chemistry. The word “chemistry” is automatically equated to “dangerous toxic chemicals” and causes confusion. But we consume chemistry every day. Water is dihydrogen monoxide. Table salt is sodium chlorine. All proteins are composed of amino acids, one of which, by the way, is called glutamic acid. Its combination with sodium gives us monosodium glutamate—the same demonic enhancer of taste that scares everyone. And which is actually not dangerous in food.
It’s amazing how easy it is to get around this fear! Let’s call a substance not by its E-code but in simple words. Not E330, but citric acid. Not E160, but clear beta-carotene from healthy carrots. We should clearly distinguish between the concept of “pesticide” and simply “chemistry.” Because chemistry is just the science of substances, their structure, and properties, these substances can be useful and vital. Or they can be neutral or poisonous for us.
Therefore, there is a classification of food additives. This is an international standard, which contains all those substances that we can put in food and not be afraid of. The standards are determined by the Joint Expert Committees of the International Agricultural Organization JECFA . And also the Codex Alimentarius, which was adopted by the FAO / WHO international commission. These are documents that are in open sources. Here, for example, you can read how food additives are tested for safety, how their toxicity and mutagenicity are studied, how often it is necessary to reevaluate . In short, the most complete information on how a substance is recognized as safe in food.
And it is precisely those substances that have repeatedly confirmed their safety that the E-code is assigned. E – from the word “Europe.” There is also a version that from the English word “edible.” But my blog readers and I joke that E is from the word “Eating.” How else to explain the fear of them?
The classification was created in the early 1960s just in order to clarify and unambiguous: “These are food additives that can be used, these are the numbers assigned to them, these are their safe daily doses.”
And all over the world, now E300 means the same thing. Whether we are in New Zealand, in Australia, or in the EU countries. And yes, E300 is just ascorbic acid. And how scary it sounds when it has an E-code!
We distinguish several groups of food additives depending on their functionality. One of them is just preservatives. Take, for example, the two most common preservatives – sodium benzoate E211 and potassium sorbate E202. Having met them on the packaging of the product, you may wonder: “Is it worth it at all to take? They poured their chemistry here! “
Sodium benzoate is a salt of benzoic acid. Chemists are generally bad with beautiful positioning. The word “benzoin” is associated with gasoline and already looks repulsive. But in reality, benzoic acid has nothing to do with gasoline. It is a naturally occurring compound found in many fruits and berries. Cranberries are especially rich in benzoic acid. Our troubles and fears are unknown to cranberries. It produces benzoic acid as a defense against microorganisms. In an acidic environment, benzoic acid successfully prevents mold growth. And the only thing that cranberries need is to protect themselves and not let themselves be eaten.
Naturally, it does not accumulate anywhere in the body, as opponents of preservatives like to write. And it binds to the amino acid glycine and is excreted in the form of hippuric acid through the kidneys . If we did not know how to metabolize benzoic acid and its salts, then we could not eat fruits or berries without harm to ourselves.
Potassium sorbate is also a salt, but another organic acid, sorbic. The story is similar: sorbic acid is produced by berries and fruits in nature. It successfully inhibits the growth of mold, prevents microorganisms from developing. Naturally approved by all food supplement safety organizations. 
In fact, man has not invented and created so much themselves. We have “spied” many food additives in nature. And they learned to use it for their own good. If cranberries can, why can’t we? The safe dosage of sodium benzoate (like any food additive with the E-code) is calculated in such a way that even if it is exceeded a hundredfold, it will not cause harm. This is how the permissible daily intake for the ADI substance is calculated . And you still have to try to exceed ADI!
According to EU laws, it is allowed to add no more than 2 g per 1 kg of product. For a separate category of liquid egg products, a value of no more than 5 g per 1 kg is set due to the increased risk of bacterial contamination. As they say, hello, salmonella!
That is, there will be 2 grams of benzoate in a kilogram of conditional mayonnaise. And if you eat a kilo of mayonnaise, you will probably feel bad. But it’s not at all because of benzoate, believe me. There is no risk of a “food supplement overeating.” Even if it is found in all foods that you eat regularly, I repeat that the norms are not calculated from the head. Unless you eat it neat with spoons, it all depends on the dosage. And vitamin C can be poisoning. And you can drink so much water that death will come. This condition is called overhydration. Alas, cases of water overdose have been repeatedly recorded.
Top 3 Misconceptions About Preservatives
“Preservatives are put in stale food”
This is absolutely not how it works—quite the opposite. If the product is ALREADY microbiologically seeded, preservatives will not help. Most food preservatives inhibit the growth of bacteria and mold. This is called bacteriostatic action. But if the microflora has already happily multiplied and feels great, banal benzoate will not help here. In addition, no decent large-scale industry would risk the reputation and health of customers by selling products that are known to be spoiled. Who will buy from them a second time if everyone is poisoned?
“Good food doesn’t last long”
Yes, yes. And the milk should turn sour on the third day. Throughout the history of all humankind, we have looked for ways to preserve food for a long time. To salt, to dry, to sugar in order to survive the hungry times. Salt, sugar, vinegar, heat treatment were our friends. We now have a huge range of proven safe preservatives. And other processing methods: pasteurization, sterilization, freezing in the end. And are we going to roll back?
In times when food was scarce and quickly deteriorated? Some kind of degradation and denial of the benefits of progress, don’t you think?
Thanks to scientific knowledge, food is now stored as long as we need it. And not how much it turns out. We do not rely on random factors, but we ourselves control the process. To prevent the milk from spoiling for a long time, we pasteurize or sterilize it. That is, we kill the microflora we do not need by heat treatment. To prevent sauce, desserts, or fish products from spoiling, we use safe and approved preservatives wisely. And it’s great. It’s worth celebrating.
If the manufacturer boasts that they did not put in preservatives and their product is stored for only three days, I have big questions for them. What microflora ALREADY exists there, that it will have time to “eat” my food in a couple of days? How did you take care of the safety of the food, and what did you do to prevent anyone from winding up in it?
“Allergies and indigestion from preservatives”
Of the preservatives, only sulfur dioxide and sulfites are included. And then, at a dosage of 10 mg per 1 kg. But this does not mean their absolute harm.
Eggs and sesame seeds are also more likely to cause allergies than other foods. But this does not mean that a healthy person should avoid them.
Second, there is no proven link between indigestion and any preservative used in food. At the moment, we know what substances and in what quantity can be put into food. And for a healthy person who eats varied and sensibly, they do not pose any harm.
The preservatives are our friends, not our enemies. It’s great that we learned to use them and know how to protect our food from encroachment. And please don’t be afraid of any kind of chemistry. Fear ignorance! This is what can really hurt.
- Food safety and quality: Chemical risks and JECFA
- Principles for the safety assessment of food additives and contaminants in food
- GSFA Online Food Additive Search Results
- Food additives and contaminants in food, principles for the safety assessment of (EHC 70, 1987)
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