Most of the food you eat today has preservatives in it. Natural and artificial preservatives are added to help keep your food from spoiling quickly. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration heavily regulates preservatives and must approve new ones before they’re allowed in foods on grocery shelves in the U.S.
Food preservatives protect food from mold, yeast, botulism toxin, and other organisms that cause food poisoning. Salting meat and adding sugar to canned foods was the original method of preserving food. Natural preservatives come from organic products, not from a lab like artificial preservatives.
What Are Preservatives Used For?
For thousands of years, people used natural preservatives to keep their food from going bad. Salt, honey, and certain fruits are good for preventing foods from spoiling. These natural preservatives keep harmful microbes from growing.
Today, natural and artificial preservatives protect foods from this same contamination. Preservatives are also used in cosmetics and pharmaceuticals to keep them from going bad. In makeup, preservatives keep harmful bacteria that can cause infections from growing in your cosmetics. In medication, they’re considered inactive ingredients and regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
A majority of foods contain artificial preservatives instead of natural preservatives. Yet, some studies have shown artificial preservatives to have harmful effects.
What Are Some Natural Preservatives?
Many types of natural preservatives are still commonly used. Some natural preservative examples include chestnut flowers and citric acid. They're high-performing preservatives also found in food supplements and other additives.
Natural preservatives come from organic matter. This means you can get natural preservatives from plants, animals, fungi, and algae. Salt and sugar are both natural preservative examples. Adding salt to meat is called curing and is how you make beef jerky, for example. You can also use salt and water to make a brine for pickling vegetables.
Other commonly used natural preservative examples include:
Natural Preservative Benefits
One of the most significant benefits of natural preservatives is controlling the growth of foodborne bacteria and illnesses like botulism. Botulism is a disease cause by a toxin that can be life-threatening. Preservatives also help prevent bad flavor and keep fruits like apples from turning brown when cut open.
Natural preservatives have become a seemingly better, safer alternative to artificial preservatives. Since these preservatives come from plants, they don’t have negative side effects like artificial preservatives.
Natural preservatives have been around for a long time. These preservatives can be used to keep meats, fruits, and vegetables for long periods. Now, preservatives can also add flavor and nutrients. Natural preservatives also add color and help make foods more affordable.
Nutrients come from the vitamins and minerals that natural preservatives add to food. The increased nutritional value helps fortify and enrich foods.
Adding preservatives has other benefits, like reducing food waste. Making food last longer on the shelf gives people with food insecurity access to more options. Both types of preservatives help create a solid food supply for most.
Natural vs. Artificial Preservatives
There are different types of artificial preservatives. Antimicrobials include nitrates and nitrites, along with sulfur dioxide. Antioxidants include BHT, BHA, and propyl gallate. Antioxidants slow the breakdown of fats and oils that make meat rancid and smelly.
Though natural preservatives have been around for a long time, artificial preservatives are mostly used today. But side effects and potential health problems can come from artificial preservatives in food. Some health hazards include:
- Neurological damage
- Some cancers
Natural preservatives come from chemicals like salt and alcohol. But man-made or synthetic chemicals make up artificial preservatives. Artificial preservatives include sodium nitrate, sodium benzoate, and propionate. Small amounts of preservatives help during food prep.
Artificial preservatives are in oral, dental, dermal, and nasal products. Aerosols might contain these preservatives. Vaccines might have certain types of preservatives to make them last longer. Other medical products contain preservatives as well.
Both natural and artificial preservatives have purposes outside of food. They're in many products we eat, put on our face or body, and inject into our bodies. That's why it's essential to know which preservatives you're consuming and limit your exposure if possible.
The downside of natural preservatives is how limited they are. They come from organic sources, but those might not be readily available near you. Naturally sourced ingredients are challenging to get. That's why manufacturers have mostly turned to artificial preservatives. They're more readily available because they're made synthetically.
Natural preservatives are also more variable than artificial ones. The variability comes from the differences in biological growth or environmental conditions. When their compounds change, that makes it harder for manufacturers to use the preservatives. They may also need a higher concentration to be effective.
Artificial preservatives can remain at a low concentration while still being effective. The public scrutiny that artificial preservatives are under makes them unable to be labeled as natural. Yet, they're more standardized in creation than natural preservatives.
Ultimately, natural ingredients come from natural sources, making them seem a better option. Your body is at least more familiar with natural ingredients, making most of them suitable for you. The fact that natural and artificial preservatives are under scrutiny by the FDA and other organizations is a good sign. This means the foods you're eating are being tested to make sure they're edible.
Both types of preservatives can be beneficial simply because they make food last longer and make it more accessible. Rural communities and remote areas that have a hard time getting fresh food need preservatives to give them the same access to unspoiled foods.
If you have access to fresh foods, you should consider foods with natural preservatives. These types of preservatives may turn out to be a better option in the end.
Scientists are continually researching how food additives and preservatives affect our world and the people who eat preserved food. It's best to stay mindful of what you're eating and how it's affecting your body. There's still more to learn about natural and artificial preservatives' effects on the human body, especially since both get added to everyday foods.