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10 Natural Alternatives to Chemical Preservatives

Before the modern food industry was born, people laid out fruits and nuts to dry in the afternoon sun; meats were smoked and cured over fires; fish was packed in thick layers of salt, and vegetables were fermented underground or pickled in vinegar. These were all-natural means of ensuring food was kept safe to eat — all using only Mother Nature’s resources.

Fast forward a few centuries, and we’ve replaced most of these traditional food preservation methods with chemists, food labs, and artificial preservatives. We get it — an ever-growing population with seemingly infinite demand for food doesn’t really leave room for doing things the old way — nor would that be possible in the current age of mass production and consumption. Still, there’s something to be said about knowing exactly what we’re putting in our bodies. The preservation processes that many packaged foods undergo today make it difficult to know what exactly we’re eating, and the effects our food has on us.

The FDA lists 3 main reasons for using food additives, or preservatives: 1) maintaining safety and freshness; 2) adding nutritional value; and 3) improving taste or appearance. While we can’t argue the necessity of using preservatives for food safety, we think there’s an ethical line that’s crossed when artificial ingredients are added just so food will look nice. Oranges, pickles, salmon, tuna and wasabi are only a few examples of foods that are enhanced to meet customers’ aesthetic expectations. But with more research coming out about the hazardous effects of preservatives, many people are asking whether ‘enhancing’ our food is really worth the risk.

While some preservatives are certainly less harmful than others, we believe that clean, preservative-free food is always a better choice for your body – that’s why, at Mosaic, we never use anything artificial in our meals. Want to do the same at home? We compiled a few all-natural ways you can preserve your food, without any chemical additives.

10 Natural Ways to Preserve at Home

1. Freezing

You know we love to freeze our food. Freezing is one of the easiest and most effective food preservation methods. For best results, invest in a vacuum sealer; the key to good freezing is making sure as little air as possible gets into your storage. This will protect your food from freezer burn and taste deterioration. If you’re throwing in foods that have just been cooked, make sure you fully cool them first. Not only will heat create steam (which speeds up freezer burn), it could also lower the temperature of foods already in your freezer, causing them to defrost. Check out our guide on how to freeze almost every veggie under the sun. Eat This, Not That also has a ton of other great tips for freezing effectively.

Related: How Long Is Frozen Good For? The Ultimate Guide

2. Salting

Salting food as a preservation technique was predominantly used before refrigeration was invented. Just like sugar, salt draws water out of food, dehydrating it. Since bacteria can’t survive without water, they eventually die. However, we don’t recommend salting as a household practice. Ingrid Koo, an infectious disease expert, explains it best: “Most bacteria, with the exception of halophiles (salt-loving bacteria), cannot grow in conditions where the salt concentration is greater than 10 percent. Molds can withstand even higher salt levels. To get 10 percent salt, you would need to dissolve 180 g salt in 1800 g water, which is approximately equivalent to 1 cup of salt dissolved in 7.5 cups of water. How salty is 10 percent salt? Have you ever accidentally swallowed water when swimming in the ocean? Seawater is 3.5 percent salt. Imagine drinking seawater that is three times saltier.” With foods that are salted today, it’s actually the combined effect of dehydration (like with jerky), or the addition of acid (like with pickles) that makes salting sanitary.

3. Canning

Canning food may sound like a colonial pastime reserved only for the Amish — and, well, maybe your grandparents. But canning is actually an awesome and effective way to preserve food, when performed properly. Canning involves putting food in jars and heating it to a temperature that kills food-spoiling organisms. As jars are heated, air is forced out and a protective vacuum seal is formed. There’s two ways of heating properly — the boiling water bath method, which is safe for fruits, jams, and other preserves; and pressure canning, which is reserved for preserving veggies, meats, and seafood. Check out this page for more on canning.

4. Pickling

Pickling is an ancient international tradition used in nearly every culture. Whether it’s sauerkraut, kimchi, kombucha, you can find pickled food almost anywhere in the world. There are two basic ways to pickle: the first is to soak food in vinegar (few bacteria can stand up to its pungent power). The other involves soaking food in a salt brine to encourage fermentation. Fermentation allows the growth of “good” bacteria, which wards off the growth of bad, spoilage-causing bacteria. If you’re serious about fermenting, Modern Farmer has a step-by-step guide.

There’s no doubt that going the all-natural route takes a bit more work and effort, and sometimes truly preservative-free options are limited. If that’s the case, look for these alternatives - they’re all found in nature, and free of chemicals! While some of these ingredients are only in the early stages of research and development, an increase in demand from health-conscious consumers could catapult them into the mainstream food market.

5. Rosemary Extract

Rosemary can be used as an alternative to BHA and BHT, preservatives which are likely carcinogenic. BHA and BHT are used to prevent oils in foods from oxidizing and becoming rancid. Rosemary extract serves the same purpose in foods like potato chips, meats, and vegetable oils, but without the health risks. In the European Union, rosemary extract obtained approval for use in food preservation way back in 2010, with Naturex, a pioneer in sustainable sourcing, leading the charge to go natural.

6. Australian Kakadu Plum

This strange fruit is making waves in Australia as a natural preservative. Its ultra-high vitamin C content launched the fruit to superfood status, as it contains about 100 times more vitamin C than blueberries and oranges. Researchers have demonstrated that the Kakadu plum can improve shelf life by up to 3 months. Wowza! A superfood, indeed.

7. Celery

In 2017, Oscar Mayer announced they would stop adding artificial preservatives — including sodium nitrite — to their hot dogs. Instead, they now use celery juice, a natural source of sodium nitrite, as a substitute,. Nitrites are used in meats to maintain the reddish/pinkish color we’ve grown accustomed to seeing in deli meats (which isn’t always natural), and to prevent the growth of harmful bacteria. Early on, sodium nitrite was identified by health researchers as a possible carcinogen, a fact that holds true regardless of whether it’s sourced naturally or artificially. Bummer. Even though a fully safe alternative hasn’t quite been perfected yet, the silver lining is that companies are starting to be more mindful about using natural ingredients.

8. Garlic

Garlic is known to have anti-viral properties. Adding garlic to your dishes can keep harmful bacteria at bay, as this 2004 study found. Chicken legs contaminated with salmonella and E. coli were dipped in garlic and observed for 15 days of refrigerated storage. In all three trials, the garlic-coated chicken showed significantly less bacterial growth than the control samples.

9. Sugar

Sugar is a natural preservative that works by draining water out of food. In doing so, it starves bacteria by depleting them of water (a process that our science-forward friends call osmosis). Without water, bacteria have no means to grow, divide, or multiply — effectively, a death sentence. Sugar is often used to preserve fruit, where its presence prevents bacteria, mold, and yeast from growing.

10. Ascorbic Acid

If you’ve ever seen this on the back of a food label, you were probably just as fooled as we were. It sounds like a nasty artificial preservative but is actually just a pseudonym for Vitamin C. It’s a crucial antioxidant agent responsible for keeping our immune systems strong. When added to food, ascorbic acid slows down the oxidation and ripening process so food stays fresh longer. The use of ascorbic acid in foods is not linked to any health risks.