Understanding food preservatives

Understanding Food Preservatives

What are food preservatives?

A food preservative is basically a substance or chemicals that are added to the food substance or beverages to prevent the decomposition caused by microbial growth, physical- chemical reactions or enzymatic reactions.

Did you know?

Food preservation is considered to be an ancient technique which is practiced to preserve the food items. 

Food preservatives are added into the food products mainly for three reasons:

  1. Food preservatives can preserve the natural characteristics of food like the flavour and aroma.
  2. Food preservatives can preserve the appearance of food.
  3. It is used to increase the shelf life of the food products, especially during storage.

There are different types of food preservatives, let us see them as follows:

Natural food preservatives

Sugar and salt are the best examples of food preservatives. Salts and sugars dehydrate the water content of the food, so that the microbes cannot grow.

We can see sugar added into jams and syrups as a preservative. They are effective in preventing the growth of bacteria in food. Salt is a food preservative added to fish and meat to prevent the microbial growth.

Using salt as natural food preservative

The chilli peppers with the combination of garlic powder is considered to preserve the pasta.

Other examples of natural preservatives are vinegar, castor oil, alcohol, lemon, etc.

The acetic content in vinegar kills the microbes and inhibits the spoilage of food. Adding citric acids, ascorbic acids (vitamin c) or other acids like vinegar can lower the pH and prevent the enzymatic browning in food items.

These are the preservatives, traditionally used at home while making various food products like the pickle.

The boiling, freezing, curing and smoking of food products are the natural ways of preserving food. Milk powder, coffee powder and soups are freeze dried for food preservation.

Chemical food preservatives

Chemical food preservatives are considered to be the best and effective way for longer shelf value as compared to the natural ones.

Some of the chemical food preservatives which are widely used are as follows:

  • Benzoates such as benzoic acid and sodium benzoate
  • Sulphites such as sulphur dioxide
  • Nitrites such as sodium nitrite is very effective in inhibiting the growth of undesirable microbes like Clostridium botulism.
  • Sorbates such as potassium sorbate, sodium sorbate.

Antioxidant is a type of chemical food preservatives. The antioxidant, acts as free radical scavengers in food. One of the major reason for food spoilage is due to the oxidation process.

The antioxidants prevent the formation of free radicals, thus antioxidants help in preventing the food from getting spoiled.

BHA (Butylated hydroxyanisole) and BHT (Butylated hydroxytoluene) are the most common examples of Antioxidants.

Classes of preservatives:

Class I preservatives– Class I preservatives are mainly common salt, sugar, dextrose, spices, vinegar or acetic acid, honey, vegetable oil etc. As they are natural products, there is no restriction of the class I preservative to any food. They are comparatively used in higher concentration than class II preservatives.

Class II preservatives– Class II preservatives are synthetic chemicals like benzoic acid and its salts, sulphur dioxide and the salts of sulphurous acid, nitrites and nitrates, sorbic acid and its salts, propionic acid and its salts, lactic acid and its salts, methyl or propyl parahydroxy benzoic acid and sodium diacetate. They are only used in small quantities and only one class II preservatives are used.

Which one is better for your health- Natural or Chemical Food Preservatives?

Chemical food preservatives are considered to be harmful, when compared with natural preservatives.

Consuming a lot of preservatives can have a negative impact on your health!!!

Artificial preservatives in food products can cause heart problems by weakening the heart tissues. Also, by removing the artificial preservative from the diet, we can reduce the symptoms of asthma and breathing problems. Some of the food preservatives like aspartame, benzoates and sulphites can cause breathing problems.

Artificial food preservatives like nitrites are carcinogenic in nature and sulphur dioxide causes irritation in bronchial tubes.

Thus, natural food preservatives are considered to be healthier in comparison to the artificial ones. But, the natural preservatives should not be mixed with any other synthetic chemicals, making it unhealthy!!!


Food preservatives are added to preserve the food from getting rancid or spoiled.

So, if you are buying a food item from the market, I would suggest you to check the back label in order to identify the preservatives added into the food products. Then, you can decide whether the food product is good or bad for your health.

I would always suggest you to make use of natural food preservatives, or go for the food products containing the natural food preservatives when compared to the artificial ones.

Avoid chemical or artificial food preservatives in your diet and stay healthy!!!

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