What Are Preservatives?
People have been preserving food since time immemorial. Salting, smoking and drying are preservation techniques that have been used for thousands of years to keep food from spoiling. In the centuries before modern refrigeration, understanding these types of preservation could mean the difference between starvation and surviving a long winter.
When most people talk about preservatives today, however, they are not referring to salt or smoke. Today’s packaged convenience foods are often manufactured far from the supermarkets where they are sold. Preservatives must be added so that the products can travel the long distance from the packaging plant to your pantry, and then stay fresh until you are ready to open the box or can and eat the food inside. If you have ever asked yourself, “What are preservatives used for?” the answer is simple. Preservatives are used to prolong a food’s shelf life. They are used to keep food edible long after nature would have it rot and decompose into the ground.
What Are Preservatives Made Of?
Although preservatives may be used with the noblest of intentions, they have developed a bad reputation, and for good reason. Although many traditional preservatives are made from natural substances such as salt, sugar, alcohol and vinegar, modern preservatives are often made from synthetic chemicals that can have devastating effects on the human body. What are preservatives in food and what do they do? Sodium benzoate, one of the most common food additives, has been shown to cause hyperactivity in children. Although tests have not yet determined the full extent of the chemical’s effects on adults, there is little doubt that this is a substance that should be avoided by anyone trying to live a healthy lifestyle. Another common preservative, sodium nitrate, changes to sodium nitrite, a known carcinogen, once it has entered the body. Sulfites, often used to prolong the shelf life of wine, can cause asthma outbreaks in those who already suffer from the condition.
If you have ever wondered, “What are preservatives and additives exactly?” the answer can get a bit complicated. Different preservatives are made from different chemicals. Although the chemicals are all used to extend the life of certain food products, each chemical achieves this in a different way. The most common preservatives, such as sorbic acid, benzoic acid, calcium propionate, sodium nitrite and disodium EDTA, are used to kill bacteria and fungus that cause rot. Other preservatives, such as BHT, BHA and propyl gallate, prevent food from changing color when exposed to oxygen. In spite of the fact that preservatives are used in almost every food sold at the average supermarket, there have been few studies that definitively state the long-term effects of exposure to these chemicals. The studies that have been done indicate that preservatives should be avoided as much as possible.
Currently, the American Food and Drug Administration does not require nutritional labeling for fresh fruits and vegetables. This means that it is nearly impossible to tell if fresh produce has been doused in preservatives. Preservatives and additives are listed, however, on the ingredients list of any packaged food. While some packages will specify which ingredients are preservatives, others will simply state the name of the chemical. The best way to avoid preservatives in packaged food is to know what you are looking for when you go shopping. Read the label before you buy any product and look for the names of the common chemicals listed above.
Although the preservatives used on fresh produce may not be listed, it is possible to find fruits and vegetables that are chemical free. Anything that has a “certified organic” label is guaranteed to be free from all types of synthetic chemicals. Not only will you avoid preservatives by eating organic, but you will also avoid harmful residue from pesticides used in the farming process.
What Are Preservatives: The Natural Approach
Finding good quality fresh produce can be difficult in the winter. Even the most health-conscious people often resort to buying preservative-laden foods during the colder months when the farmer’s market is closed. One way to make sure that you have access to high quality, healthful ingredients year round is to preserve food yourself. Whether you buy organic vegetables or plant your own garden, you should make sure that you have a surplus of fresh produce in the summer. Once you have stockpiled enough food, you can start to preserve it yourself.
Freezing is the simplest form of preservation. Clean and pit or core your fruit and vegetables before freezing. Dunking them briefly into boiling water can also help your produce keep its color and freshness. Once the produce has been prepared, simply store it in airtight freezer bags in the freezer. If you are a bit more adventurous in the kitchen, you may find that you enjoy pickling your vegetables or making jams and preserves. These methods use salt, vinegar, sugar and fermentation to keep the produce edible for months. Learning proper canning techniques is another way to make sure that your food stays fresh year-round. So, what are preservatives, really? Preservatives can be whatever you want them to be, as long as they fit into your healthy lifestyle.
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