Are Food Preservatives Safe?

Much of the food we eat contains preservatives, but most people don’t know what they are or whether they pose health risks.
November 4, 2021

With food-borne illness outbreaks regularly occurring across the world, consumers and businesses are realising the importance of proper food processing and manufacturing. One of the ways food safety risks are minimised is through preservation techniques — which have improved rapidly over the last decade.

How food preservatives are used

Preservatives are ingredients added to food to make the item last longer or taste better. For example, sulphites used in wine, and nitrates used in meat. Adding too much preservative to a food can be harmful to human health, though, so it’s crucial to always follow instructions when using preserved products in your business.

Increased shelf life is among the main benefits of food preservatives, which are added during food processing to limit the growth of dangerous microbes. Microscopic germs are everywhere, but some of them are dangerous and can cause illness. High-risk food items such as meat, seafood, dairy and cheese are a breeding ground for potentially dangerous microbes because of their high moisture content. Preservatives are usually needed to ensure these high-risk products are safe for consumption.

What’s the difference between preservatives and additives?

Preservatives are additives, but additives are not necessarily preservatives. Additives are primarily included in the food-manufacturing process to enhance a product’s flavour, colour or texture. Additives are not used to enhance food safety, but to improve aesthetic appeal of the product.

Common food preservatives

Natural preservatives are ingredients found in nature and are non-synthetic. They include:

  • Ascorbic acid: This is more widely known as Vitamin C. It prevents bread from spoiling, and can be used to add citrus flavour to foods like candies.
  • Citric acid: This is usually used to enhance the flavour of foods such as jams or juices.
  • Vitamin E, or tocopherols: Vitamin E occurs naturally in nuts and seeds, and is used to prevent browning.
  • Betanin: Used to colour foods such as ice cream, sugar coatings or fruit fillings, betanin is a compound found in beet root and other natural foods with a reddish pigment.

Some of the most commonly used preservatives are synthetic, or man-made. These include:

  • Calcium phosphate: It’s used to thicken and stabilise foods, and to prevent lumps from forming in baked goods.
  • Sorbic acid: It occurs naturally in berries, and is used in wine, cheese and meats. It can also prevent mould and yeasts from growing.
  • Nitrates and nitrites: When naturally occurring, these can be safe. Usually, though, nitrates/nitrites are used in meat to add colour and preserve shelf life. In large quantities, these preservatives can be carcinogenic, which is why if a meat does not contain nitrates/nitrites, the producer will advertise that fact to increase sales.
  • Benzoic acid and sodium benzoate: Benzoic acid occurs naturally in some fruits and spices. Because it’s not water-soluble, sometimes sodium benzoate is used instead. Though both help limit microbial growth, benzoate contains small amounts of the carcinogen benzene.
  • Sulfites: Used to prevent browning, sulfites often appear in ingredients lists as sulfur dioxide, potassium metabisulfite, sodium metabisulfite, sodium metabisulfite, sodium sulfite or sodium bisulfite. Sulfites prevent dried fruits from rotting, and are used to preserve fruit juices and wine. They’re considered safe, but can impact people who suffer from asthma — even causing severe asthma attacks in rare instances.
  • EDTA: Plenty of sauces, canned foods and carbonated beverages contain EDTA, which stands for ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid. It’s considered safe, and helps prevent food from oxidising, a process that can change the appearance and taste of the food, and turn food rotten.
  • BHT and BHA: Like EDTA, these preservatives prevent oxidisation. Butylated Hydroxytoluene and Butylated Hydroxyanisole are actually antioxidants — substances that can prevent or slow damage to cells caused by free radicals — and are seen as safe in limited amounts. BHA is waxy in texture, and BHT is a powder, and they appear in cereals, dehydrated potato shreds and beverages.

Food safety concerns related to food preservatives

One of the main purposes of preservatives is to increase food safety by halting the growth of harmful microbes, including bacteria, yeast and mould.

Even while recognised as safe for the general population, many food preservatives and additives can be harmful — even deadly — to certain people. And many preservatives would be harmful to everyone if they surpass a certain quantity in any given food.

Betanin, for instance, could cause a severe allergic reaction in someone who’s allergic to beet root. Synthetic preservatives present different risks: some are known to cause cancer in high amounts, or in the case of nitrates, for example, to have carcinogenic properties when cooked at very high temperatures.

More studies, and longer-term studies, are needed to determine the true risk of consumption of these preservatives over time. Testing is an ongoing process, and the more tests conducted, the more information will become available to food businesses.

What food businesses need to know

Customers may have an intolerance or allergy to certain preservatives, so Food Handlers must be aware of what foods contain which preservatives, as some can cause negative reactions when consumed by people with sensitivities.

Any food may contain an allergen. It is vital that the business ensures procedures and training are put in place so that food service staff understand their obligations to declare known allergens in food when a customer asks.

Food allergies and intolerances are becoming more common in Australia. Food Handlers need to understand their role in knowing what is in each and every food, as well as where to find that information if a customer asks. Whether you’re handling, preparing or just selling a ready-made food, you still have the same responsibility to the customer. By knowing what is in each food product, you can safeguard your business from lawsuits and lost revenue, and more importantly, you can protect customers.

The Australian Institute of Food Safety’s (AIFS) Allergen Management Checklist is designed to help food businesses ensure procedures are in place, staff are properly trained and customers are made aware of any allergens and other potential food intolerances present in menu items. Use our checklist at regular intervals and each time the menu changes to help prevent negative reactions from food allergies and intolerances.