Preservatives: Extending Shelf Life, Compromising Health?

1. The Role of Preservatives in Food Safety:

Preservatives play a crucial role in preventing spoilage and extending the shelf life of food products. However, the benefits of preservation must be weighed against potential health risks associated with certain preservatives.

Research on the potential harms associated with specific artificial food preservatives is an evolving field. While preservatives play a crucial role in preventing spoilage and extending the shelf life of food products, concerns have been raised about their impact on health. Here are key studies and findings related to specific food preservatives:

  • · Butylated Hydroxy anisole (BHA) Butylated Hydroxytoluene (BHT) – Packaging, cereals, hot dogs, beer, butter, vegetable oils, cosmetics, chewing gum, potato chips, meat patties, animal feed

DNA/Cell Damage and Carcinogenic Potential:

A study published in Heliyon (2021) indicated that BHT and BHA can lead to cytotoxicity and genotoxicity in the root tip cells of A. cepa (common onion). The findings suggest caution in using higher concentrations of these preservatives in packaged foods. Even lower concentrations may pose harm, as the continuous intake of these preservatives can accumulate in the body, potentially causing carcinogenic or mutagenic effects on humans. Consequently, it is crucial to assess the genotoxic effects of food preservatives on other bodily systems as well.

  • · Propionic Acid – Breads, cheeses, animal feed

A randomized controlled trial featured in BMJ Open Diabetes Research & Care revealed that oral consumption of Propionic Acid (PA) leads to the inappropriate activation of the insulin counterregulatory hormonal network, underscoring PA’s potential as a metabolic disruptor. Preclinical investigations illustrated that the introduction of exogenous PA resulted in heightened levels of glucagon, norepinephrine, and endogenous glucose production (EGP).

  • · Propyl Paraben – Cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, personal care products, beer, wine, soft drinks, baked goods, jams and jellies, cheeses, dietary supplements

A literature review published in Proceedings of the Zoological Society, determined that Parabens interfere with the regular functioning of hormones, contributing to the occurrence of reproductive, developmental, and neurological disorders. Additionally, they are associated with thyroid-related issues, skin allergies, and an increased risk of cancer.

  • Sodium Benzoate – Carbonated drinks, sauces, mayonnaise, margarines, tomato paste, fruit preserves

DNA Damage and Allergic Reactions:

Research suggests that sodium benzoate, when combined with specific food colorings, could enhance DNA damage. Additionally, sodium benzoate has been associated with allergic reactions in sensitive individuals.

Hyperactivity and ADHD:

Research suggests that sodium benzoate consumed from beverages in high amounts contributed to ADHD symptoms in both children and college students.

Carcinogenic Potential:

According to the FDA, Benzoate can interact with Vitamin C forming the known carcinogen Benzene after being exposed to heat and light.

  • · Sodium Sorbate – Cheese, meat, ketchup, mayonnaise, marmalade 

Carcinogenic Potential:

Study findings in Cytotechnology (2012) demonstrated that sodium sulfite (SS), a frequently employed substance in the food industry, exhibits genotoxic and clastogenic effects on human peripheral lymphocytes. Based on this information, it can be inferred that SS might contribute to cancer due to its mutagenic and genotoxic effects.

  • Sodium Nitrite and Nitrate- Cereals and dried goods, Food packaging, Cosmetics, Pharmaceuticals:

Carcinogenic Potential:

Nitrites and nitrates, commonly used in processed meats, have been a subject of concern due to their potential to form nitrosamines, known carcinogens. A review published in the European Food Safety Authority Journal in 2023 highlighted the association between nitrosamines and an increased risk of cancer, particularly in the liver. Also, according to various research, consuming excessive amounts of nitrite can lead to methemoglobinemia in children and increase the likelihood of developing colorectal cancer in adults.

  • Sulfites – Soft drinks, alcohol, dried fruits and vegetables

Asthma and Respiratory Symptoms:

Sulfites, commonly used as preservatives in various foods and beverages, have been associated with respiratory sensitivities, particularly in individuals with asthma. Sensitivity to sulfite-containing foods, beverages, or medications is observed in 3-10% of individuals with asthma from most studies. In 2009, “Clinical and Experimental Allergy” published a study that investigated the connection between sulfite exposure and asthma symptoms. The study concluded that there is a necessity for heightened clinical awareness and recommended dietary and behavioral modifications to enhance overall clinical outcomes for sulphite-sensitive individuals.

Allergic Reactions:

Sulfites are known to cause allergic reactions in sensitive individuals, ranging from mild symptoms to more severe responses. Research has emphasized the importance of awareness and labeling to protect individuals with known sensitivities.

These studies highlight some of the concerns associated with specific artificial food preservatives. However, it’s important to acknowledge that the safety of preservatives can vary, and their impact may depend on factors such as dosage, individual sensitivity, and overall dietary patterns. Ongoing research is crucial to further understand the potential harms and benefits of artificial food preservatives in various contexts.

The Cumulative Impact:

2. Synergistic Effects and Unknown Interactions:

Combining artificial flavors, colorings, and preservatives in a single product is a common practice in the food industry. However, the potential synergistic effects and interactions between these additives remain largely unknown.

  • Cumulative Exposure: Consumers are exposed to a myriad of artificial additives through the consumption of various processed and packaged foods. The cumulative impact of these additives on health is a complex puzzle that requires further research to unravel.
  • Individual Variability: The response to artificial additives can vary widely among individuals. Factors such as genetics, age, and pre-existing health conditions may influence how the body processes and reacts to these synthetic compounds.

Regulatory Landscape and Gaps:

3. Regulatory Oversight: Striking a Balance:

The use of artificial flavors, colorings, and preservatives is subject to regulatory oversight, with agencies such as the FDA in the United States and the EFSA in the European Union setting standards. However, challenges and gaps in the regulatory landscape persist.

  • GRAS Status and Self-Regulation: Some additives are designated as Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) based on industry assessments. Critics argue that self-regulation and industry-sponsored safety evaluations may not provide sufficient protection for consumers.
  • Labeling Transparency: While regulations require the listing of ingredients on food labels, the use of proprietary blends and vague terminology can hinder transparency. Consumers may be left unaware of the specific artificial additives present in the products they consume.

Making Informed Choices:

4. Empowering Consumers for Healthier Choices:

In the face of these potential risks, consumers can take proactive steps to make informed choices about their diets. Awareness and education are key components of navigating the complex landscape of artificial additives.

  • Label Scrutiny: Thoroughly reading food labels is essential. Look for clear indications of artificial flavors, colorings, and preservatives. Familiarize yourself with the names of specific additives and their potential risks.
  • Opting for Natural Alternatives: Choosing whole, minimally processed foods can significantly reduce exposure to artificial additives. Natural alternatives for flavoring and coloring, such as herbs, spices, and fruit extracts, offer healthier options.
  • Advocacy for Transparency: Advocating for increased transparency in labeling and regulatory practices can contribute to a safer food environment. Consumer demand for clearer information empowers individuals to make choices aligned with their health priorities.




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2. Butylated Hydroxyanisole – an overview | ScienceDirect Topics

3. Mitra, P., Chatterjee, S., Paul, N. et al. An Overview of Endocrine Disrupting Chemical Paraben and Search for An Alternative – A Review. Proc Zool Soc 74, 479–493 (2021).

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6. Sulfite Allergy & Sensitivity: Symptoms, Tests & Treatments (

7. The evaluation of the genotoxicity of two food preservatives: Sodium benzoate and potassium benzoate – ScienceDirect

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13. Mamur S, Yüzbaşıoğlu D, Unal F, Aksoy H. Genotoxicity of food preservative sodium sorbate in human lymphocytes in vitro. Cytotechnology. 2012 Oct;64(5):553-62. doi: 10.1007/s10616-012-9434-5. Epub 2012 Feb 29. PMID: 22373823; PMCID: PMC3432536.

*Stay tuned for next weeks focus on artificial flavorings.

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