Are Preservatives Bad for You? Major Food Additives to Avoid.
Sorbic acid, sodium benzoate, butylated hydroxyanisole - sounds like the ingredients for a mysterious potion, doesn’t it? But the truth is, these are actually ingredients found in a lot of the processed foods you eat. Just trying to pronounce them is enough to give you a headache… so can you imagine what ingesting them might do to you? In our quest for convenient and healthy meals, we had the same questions. So, we created a list of the most common food preservatives broken down by what they are, how they’re made, what foods you’ll find them in, and any known dangers — as well as our own personal risk rating, with low being okay to eat, and high meaning avoid at all costs. Here’s our in-depth look at the good, the bad, and the ugly:
- What is it? Sounds iffy, but it’s actually a scientific name for Vitamin C. Why they didn’t just call it that, we’ll never know...
- What foods is it in? Mostly fruits and vegetables, especially citrus fruits. Most experts recommend getting your vitamin C from fresh fruits and veggies, rather than taking dietary supplements.
- Threat level: Low. But like moms love to say, too much of anything is a bad thing. Ingesting more than 2000mg per day can lead to kidney stones and severe diarrhea, so don’t overdo it.
- What is it? Originally derived from lemon juice, it can also be made from black mold, (Aspergillus Niger), which creates citric acid when it feeds on sugar Like its name suggests, citric acid is found most abundantly in citrus fruits.
- What foods is it in? Because of its acidity and sour taste, it’s often used in soft drinks and candies, but also as an effective disinfectant against bacteria and viruses. However, because of the high cost to source it naturally, 70% of foods and beverages use a manufactured form of citric acid (from the aforementioned mold).
- Threat level: Low. In very rare cases, there have been reports of sickness and allergic reactions, but researchers attribute them as any negative side effects believe it’s actually a reaction to trace amounts of mold residue from the manufacturing process, not from citric acid itself. In a controlled study, there were no reports of such symptoms in people who ingested the natural form, so you can rest assured about its safety.
- What is it? Not to be confused with the similarly named ‘ascorbic acid,’ sorbic acid is a naturally occurring compound, and one of the most common food preservatives out there. Originally derived from rowan tree berries, it’s now manufactured synthetically for the most part, but its use is preferred to nitrates, (which are known carcinogens).
- What foods is it in? It’s used in meats, cheeses, baked goods, and fresh produce to prevent mold growth, as well as in some pharmaceutical drugs and cosmetics.
- Threat level: Low. There have been no reports of sorbic causing health problems and it is considered non-toxic.
Autolyzed Yeast Extract
- What is it? Autolyzed yeast extract is the resulting substance from the breakdown of yeast cells. It naturally contains small amounts of MSG. Because of this, foods with yeast extract can’t claim “No MSG” on labels, but also don’t have to list it proactively either, since glutamate is a naturally occurring component of yeast extract.
- What foods is it in? Used primarily as a flavor enhancer, you’ll find it in canned soups and stews, frozen foods, in soy sauce, cheeses, and even foreign spreads like Vegemite and Marmite.
- Threat level: Low. While yeast extract is high in sodium, so little is used in foods that it hardly alters the sodium content of foods. It’s also very high in Vitamin B and a less potent, more natural alternative to MSG.
MSG (Monosodium glutamate)
- What is it? Probably one of the most famous food additives, MSG is the sodium salt of glutomatic acid, which occurs naturally in a lot of foods, namely parmesan, tomatoes, and dried mushrooms. The newest fifth flavor profile, “umami,” is generally attributed to MSG’s delicious, often indescribable taste.
- What foods is it in? Common foods that often contain MSG include soups, broth, soy sauce, fish sauce, oyster sauce, miso, tempeh, soy protein, and processed meats and fish, including ham.
- Threat level: Medium– While there hasn’t been a definitive link made between MSG and some of the reported symptoms (headaches, sweating, weakness, flushing), we think it’s best to steer clear, unless it’s naturally occurring in the food. After all, it’s basically just another type of salt - and limiting your sodium intake is always a good thing. Note that it can also be listed as hydrolyzed soy protein, or autolyzed yeast extract - these contain naturally occurring MSG but not enough to require a separate listing of MSG as an ingredient
Tartrazine (Yellow 5)
- What is it? A synthetic lemon azo dye - It’s one of the most widely used food colorings.
- What foods is it in? Tartrazine is in a lot of kid favorite foods: Mac and cheese, Mountain Dew, orange-colored chips, jello, Kool-Aid, pasta, frosting, cereal, ice cream, and a variety of different candies. Sounds like every kids’ dream food list, doesn’t it?
- Threat level: Medium– This dye was once thought to reduce sperm counts in men. Although that’s since been debunked, tartrazine has been linked to hyperactivity and loss of concentration in some children. We recommend parents limit kids’ intake of the stuff. It’s banned in Austria and Norway, but the FDA doesn’t have any limitations on it here in the US.
BHA and BHT
- What is it? Both are synthetic antioxidants created in the 1940s to serve a dual purpose: keeping fats in foods from going bad and retaining flavor and color of foods.
- What foods is it in?BHA and BHT are found not only in cereals, gum, fast food, drink mixes, shortening, packaged snack foods, and more, but also food packaging - as well as makeup, rubber, and plastics. Yuck.
- Threat level: Medium– The FDA sets limits on the amounts of BHA that can be present in foods, and rightfully so — many studies have shown BHA to be carcinogenic in rats, and another study, along with the International Agency for Research on Cancer, concluded that BHA can “reasonably” be considered a human carcinogen as well. While BHT does not yield the same risks, they’re both worth keeping an eye out for.
High Fructose Corn Syrup
- What is it? You’ve probably read or heard about more than your fair share of this one - it’s an artificial sweetener made from corn syrup that’s cheaper to procure than actual sugar. Plus, it’s about 2000 times sweeter than cane sugar, so companies save by having to use only a fraction of what they would otherwise.
- What foods is it in? A better question might be - what foods is HFCS not in? We kid - but there are truly a lot that contain HFCS, in everything from soda to even granola bars. Check out this list of 20 common foods.
- Threat level: Medium– Like real sugar, eating large amounts of HFCS can lead to diabetes, heart disease, and obesity. It’s also high in calories but has no nutritional benefit, so you’re filling up on empty calories when you could be eating more nutrient-dense foods to feel full instead.
- What is it? Aspartame is another artificial sweetener that’s been in use since the 1980s - but it’s been controversial for several years now amid rumors that it causes cancer.
- What foods is it in? You probably know aspartame as Equal, NutraSweet, or other tabletop sweetener brands.
- Threat level: Medium– There have been a number of studies linking aspartame to causing cancer, but many of them have been refuted or discredited for using flawed methods, While there’s still no conclusive evidence that aspartame causes cancer, you can find endless sources that will argue its dangers with great conviction. The American Cancer Society says it’s fine — however, we’ll always rule in favor of chemical-free, which is why we still gave it a medium rating.
- What is it? While it shares a name with the chewy golden brown candy that many love, this caramel is actually the most popular artificial food coloring added to soft drinks and some foods to make them brown.
- What foods is it in? Soda, cocoa, meat, gravies, beer, coffee drinks - if it’s got a brown color, there’s probably caramel in it!
- Threat level: Medium– 4-methylimidazole is an ingredient in some forms of caramel that has been linked to cancer. The biggest danger comes from sodas, which contain the highest amounts of caramel. The amounts in other foods are usually very small quantities. We wouldn’t lose sleep over it, but always check the ingredient labels for yourself and avoid it when you can.
- What is it? An artificial additive that belongs to the same chemical group as alcohol - while it’s been deemed safe, it was embroiled in controversy after the discovery that it is also an ingredient in antifreeze…
- What foods is it in? It’s used to retain moisture in foods as an anti-caking agent in dried soups, cheese, marshmallows, and also as a dough strengthener and texturizer in a wide variety of other foods.
- Threat level: Medium– You’ll find a lot of mixed opinions and conflicting research online about the health effects of propylene glycol. While there aren’t any proven reports, we advise erring on the side of caution, as a lot of foods in the US that contain propylene glycol exceed the maximum recommended by the World Health Organization.
Sulfur Dioxide and Sodium Sulfite
- What is it? We grouped these two additives together because they’re very similar and used in many of the same foods. While sodium sulfite is a true sulfite, sulfur dioxide is not quite - just a closely related chemical oxide. For the sake of simplicity in this category, we’ll refer to them collectively as ‘sulfites.’
- What foods is it in? In dried fruits and vegetables, sulfites are used to preserve light coloring after they’re dried. Look for organic options that don’t use sulfites or sulfur dioxide in them - they won’t last as long as their preservative-filled counterparts, but throwing them in the freezer can even the scales. Sulfites are also used in soft drinks, beer, and wine to maintain freshness and prevent oxidation.
- Threat level: Medium– People with asthma are more likely to have a sensitivity to sulfites and suffer an allergic reaction (typically wheezing or respiratory irritation), although the FDA says less than one percent of the population experiences this. However, way back in 1986, the FDA banned all sulfites (including sulfur dioxide, which they lump in with sulfites) from use in any fresh fruits and veggies, except for potatoes, which they couldn’t find a suitable preservative for.
- What is it? Propylparaben is a synthetically manufactured preservative used in cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, and foods.
- What foods is it in? EWG, an environmental watchdog organization, lists propylparaben in 49 different packaged foods from many recognizable brands.
- Threat level: High– Several studies have linked propyl paraben to disrupted hormone signaling and diminished fertility. In 2002, a Tokyo study found that propyl paraben caused decreased sperm counts in rats — at and below the rates the FDA currently still allows. While the EU consequently outlawed its use in 2006, the US still lists propylparaben on its list of “Foods Generally Recognized as Safe.”
- What is it? Sodium nitrate and nitrite are both chemicals added to processed meats to preserve them, as well as to give meat that familiar red/pink coloring. The difference between the two preservatives is that sodium nitrite has one less oxygen atom.
- What foods is it in? Both nitrates and nitrites are found in cured meats, bacon, ham, hot dogs, salami, canned meat — essentially, any processed meat is likely going to have nitrites. Your best bet is to just stay away from any of these, even brands that tout “nitrate/nitrite-free” labels. These just use celery powder as a substitute, which, when ingested, has the exact same effect as regular nitrates on the body.
- Threat level: High– Most people are already aware that eating a lot of processed meats can lead to heart disease and diabetes. But a 2005 study found that eating processed meats puts you at 67% more risk of developing pancreatic cancer. Choose fresh meat over processed whenever you have the choice.
- What is it? This food coloring comes from petroleum distillates or coal tars and is added to foods to give it — you guessed it — a red color.
- What foods is it in? M&Ms, Reese’s Pieces, red or orange sports drinks/sodas, and Fruity Pebbles are just a few obvious examples of foods with Red 40. But foods that aren’t even red contain Red 40 too, like cheeses, peanut butter crackers, salad dressing, and marshmallows.
- Threat level: High– Like Yellow 5, Red 40 is linked to hyperactivity in children — but there’s more. Red 40 also contains p-Cresidine, which is “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen” by the US Department of Health and Human Services. We recommend avoiding artificial food coloring, regardless of its color — we agree with Hamish McNab’s view that “any chemical should be regarded as potentially harmful when ingested,” and that even “naturally occurring chemicals can be just as harmful as synthetic ones.”
Brominated Vegetable Oil
- What is it? Called BVO for short, Coca Cola stopped using this additive a few years back, but it’s still found in other soft drinks. It’s made by adding bromine across the double bonds of fatty acids in vegetable oil (chemistry majors, assemble!) Why do brands use this version instead of regular vegetable oil? BVO is denser, so it keeps citrus flavorings suspended rather than separating.
- What foods is it in? The most recent list of drinks with BVO we could find was from 2012, so make sure you do your own diligence when it comes to soda — a few big names on the list included Mountain Dew, Fanta, Sunkist, Gatorade, and Powerade.
- Threat level: High– This is another food additive banned in Europe and Japan, but not in the US. Bromine is a skin and mucous membrane irritant, and long term exposure to it has been linked to memory loss and impaired balance.
- What is it? Potassium bromate is a chemical created to speed up the aging process in flour. Traditionally, bakers “aged” flour by exposing it to air for weeks so that it would help bread would rise when baked. Potassium bromate makes mass production of bread much easier, and guarantees that the end result will always be white, soft, and fluffy.
- What foods is it in? It’s used in at least 100 foods still in the US as a flour enhancer, making bread rise higher and giving it a whiter color. Pizza crusts, cookies, beef patties, buns, sliced breads, and processed meals are just a few examples of foods potassium bromate is used in.
- Threat level: High– Way back in 1982, researchers in Japan found that potassium bromate caused cancer in rats, and the International Cancer Agency listed it as a carcinogen. As a result, Canada, the EU, Brazil, China, India, and the UK have all banned it — but the US hasn’t followed suit. Steer clear of this substance and watch out for its pseudonym, bromated flour.
- What is it? Created artificially by adding hydrogen to vegetable oils to make them more solid, trans fats usually masquerade on food labels as “partially hydrogenated oil.” They’re used to increase shelf life of food and improve taste.
- What foods is it in? Trans fats are found in basically all fried foods, as well as baked goods, and a lot of snack foods, like chips and microwaved popcorn. Foods with refrigerated dough like pizza crusts, biscuits, and cinnamon rolls also have them. Be wary of food labels - companies are permitted to list foods with up to 0.5 grams of trans fat as having “0 grams.” That can add up quickly, especially if you’re eating multiple servings!
- Threat level: High– The FDA ruled trans fats unsafe to eat in 2015, and gave food-makers a 3-year deadline to remove them from their foods. However, there are some exemptions to the ban, especially when it comes to fast food. Trans fats raise your “bad” cholesterol levels (LDL) and lower the “good” kind (HDL), increasing your risk of heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes.
Benzoic Acid/Sodium Benzoate
- What is it? A compound naturally found in a lot of plants, it inhibits the growth of yeast, bacteria, and molds. However, because benzoic acid has very low solubility, the salt derived from it is used more frequently in foods, while the original benzoic Acid is more effective as an antibacterial agent.
- What foods is it in? Strawberries, cayenne pepper, mustard seeds, cloves, salvia, thyme, nutmeg, and cinnamon are all natural sources of benzoic acid. You’ll find the man-made version added to acidic foods like salad dressings (i.e. acetic acid in vinegar), carbonated drinks, jams and fruit juices, pickles, and condiments. It’s also added to beauty products like mouthwash, shampoo, body lotions, and deodorant to prevent bacterial contamination.
- Threat level: High– Benzoic Acid is outlawed in some countries. When it is used, it’s usually in quantities of less than 0.1%. It’s linked to cancer-causing inflammation, ADHD, oxidative stress (which damages cells and increases chronic disease risk). If you’re hoping to avoid this preservative, look out for the words benzoic acid, benzene, benzoate, or benzoate on ingredient labels.
So, while some additives should rightfully have you running in the opposite direction, others are fair game. Use your best judgment (and this list) when deciding what to accept in your foods.