Chemical Preservatives; 7 Little Secrets Turned Hypnotic Lies

Chemical preservatives seem to be all around us. Have you ever wondered why a commercially manufactured loaf of bread still feels fresh and fluffy days after a home-baked loaf has gone hard and is slowly turning green?

In this article, we’re going to have a look at some of the chemicals used as preservatives and see if we can figure out a bit more about if they should be in our day-to-day lives.

What are Chemical Preservatives?

Many different products have preservatives added to them for a broad range of objectives. The underpinning rationale is maintaining product quality and longevity.

This goal is what the manufacturers are largely aiming for so that what you buy from them is still looking good, suitable to use, and unlikely to spoil because of harmful organisms, mold, oxidisation, and other spoilage factors.

There is a long history of concerns about some of the chemicals used for these purposes. I can remember my Grandmother refusing to have certain things in her house because of what was in them – and this was in the early 1980s.

My parents refused to take us to certain fast food chains (you know the ones I’m talking about that target their ads at kids) because they didn’t equate what these places were serving as being food.

chemical preservatives - fast food

Nowadays I’m now extremely grateful for their persistence and the habits they instilled, even though at the time I pitched the biggest fit! All of this was done from a place of love because they cared about what we were exposed to.

Many of the products we see nowadays are nothing short of chemical cocktails. Loaded with all sorts of 43+ letter ingredients that most people can’t pronounce, numbers out of the whazoo, and very little that could be considered naturally grown or formed.

7 Common Chemical Preservatives

Let’s take a closer look at some specific chemicals used as preservatives in the food and personal care industry. The more common ones (in no specific order) you are likely to come across are likely to include:

  1. Carboxymethylcellulose
  2. Sodium Nitrate
  3. Sodium Sulfite
  4. Sodium Benzoate
  5. Potassium Benzoate
  6. Butylated Hydroxyanisole (BHA), and
  7. Butylated Hydroxytoluene (BHT)

Some of these might be very familiar to you, while others, looking more like a random alphabet soup, seem more than just strange.

Carboxymethylcellulose 

Carboxymethylcellulose (CMC) is a food additive that is used as a stabiliser, thickener, and emulsifier. It is derived from cellulose, which is the main structural component of plant cell walls.

CMC is considered safe for consumption and is used in a wide range of food products, including ice cream, salad dressings, and sauces.

Butylated Hydroxyanisole (BHA)

It is also used in non-food products such as toothpaste and cosmetics. The FDA has classified CMC as a GRAS (Generally Recognised as Safe) substance. 1

Take a closer look at this in Carboxymethylcellulose; 5 Health Risks You Need To Know Now.

Sodium Nitrate

Sodium Nitrate (NaNO3) is a food additive that is used as a preservative and a color fixative in meat products such as bacon, ham, and hot dogs. 2

It is also used in some processed cheeses, smoked fish, and meat. The use of sodium nitrate has been controversial due to concerns about its potential health effects. Long-term consumption of high levels of nitrates and nitrites has been linked to an increased risk of certain types of cancer. 3 4

However, some Researchers argue that the evidence behind this is not conclusive.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has set a limit on the amount of nitrates and nitrites that can be added to food. The FDA also regulates the use of sodium nitrate in food products. 5 6

Take a closer look at this in Sodium Nitrate; The Truth About 5 Staggering Health Risks.

Sodium Sulfite

Sodium Sulfite (Na2SO3) is a food additive that is used as a preservative and a bleaching agent. It is often used in dried fruits, wine, beer, and other fermented foods to prevent discolouration and the growth of bacteria. It is also used to preserve the colour of shrimp and other seafood.

In the world of chemical preservatives, Sodium Sulfite is considered safe for consumption in small amounts. However, some people may be sensitive to it, and may experience symptoms such as hives, difficulty breathing, and stomach cramps.

The FDA has also set a limit on the amount of sulfites that can be added to food. The use of sulfites is also prohibited on fresh fruits and vegetables. 7

It’s worth noting that some people are sensitive to sulfites, and may experience allergic reactions such as hives, difficulty breathing, and stomach cramps. If you experience any of these symptoms after consuming a food that contains sulfites, you should avoid consuming sulfites in the future. 8

Take a closer look at this in Sodium Sulfite; 5 Health Risks To Be Aware Of Now.

Sodium Benzoate

Sodium Benzoate (NaC7H5O2) is a food additive that is used as a preservative to prevent the growth of bacteria and mould.

It is commonly used in acidic foods and beverages such as soft drinks, fruit juices, pickles, and condiments. It is also used in cosmetics and personal care products such as mouthwash, shampoo, and lotion.

Sodium benzoate is generally considered safe for consumption and has been approved by regulatory agencies worldwide including the FDA. However, when combined with Vitamin C, it can form a small amount of benzene; a known carcinogen. 9

Therefore, the FDA has set limits on the amount of resultant benzene that can be present in beverages as one of the chemical preservatives we’re looking at as a result of them containing both sodium benzoate and Vitamin C.

It’s worth noting that some people may be sensitive to sodium benzoate and may experience symptoms similar to those mentioned earlier, such as hives, difficulty breathing, and stomach cramps. 10

chemical preservatives - allergic reactions

If you experience any of these symptoms after consuming a food that contains sodium benzoate, you should avoid consuming products with it in the future.

Take a closer look at this in Sodium Benzoate; 5 Scary Health Risks Will Blow Your Mind.

Potassium Benzoate

Potassium Benzoate (KC7H5O2) is a food additive that is used as a preservative to prevent the growth of bacteria and mould. It is similar to Sodium Benzoate, but with the potassium ion instead of sodium, and it has the same function and properties as Sodium Benzoate.

It is commonly used in acidic foods and beverages such as soft drinks, fruit juices, pickles, and condiments. It is also used in cosmetics and personal care products.

Like sodium benzoate, potassium benzoate is generally considered safe for consumption and is approved by regulatory agencies worldwide, including the FDA. 11

However, when combined with Vitamin C, it can form a small amount of benzene, a known carcinogen. Therefore, the FDA has set limits on the amount of benzene that can be present in beverages containing both potassium benzoate and Vitamin C.

Take a closer look at this in Potassium Benzoate; How To Avoid These 5 Shocking Health Risks.

Butylated Hydroxyanisole (BHA)

Butylated Hydroxyanisole (BHA) is a synthetic antioxidant food additive that is used to preserve the freshness and stability of fats and oils in food.

It is used in a wide range of products including breakfast cereals, snack foods, butter, meats, and baked goods. BHA also appears in quite a few personal care and cosmetic products.

BHA as another entry in the chemical preservatives list has been generally recognised as safe (GRAS) by the U.S Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and is approved by regulatory agencies worldwide. However, some studies in animals have suggested that BHA may be a potential carcinogen. 12

What is quite worrying about BHA is that it has been classified as a “possible human carcinogen” by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC). The FDA has re-evaluated the safety of BHA and continues to consider it safe to use in food, however, they are also requesting more research on this matter. 13

Take a closer look at this in Butylated Hydroxyanisole; Get Perspective On These 4 Health Risks Now.

Butylated Hydroxytoluene (BHT)

Butylated Hydroxytoluene (BHT) is a synthetic antioxidant food additive that is used to preserve the freshness and stability of fats and oils in food.

It is used in a wide range of products including breakfast cereals, snack foods, butter, meats, and baked goods. BHT is also a chemical that appears in personal care and cosmetic products.

BHT has been generally recognised as safe (GRAS) by the U. S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and is approved by regulatory agencies worldwide. 14

However, some studies in animals have suggested that BHT may have potential health effects such as liver and kidney damage, and affect the immune system.

The IARC has not classified BHT as a carcinogen to humans. The FDA has re-evaluated the safety of BHT and continues to consider it safe to use in food, however, they are also requesting more research on this matter.

Take a closer look at this in Butylated Hydroxytoluene; 3 Astonishing Health Risks Will Make You Cringe.

Chemical Preservatives FAQs

What are some examples of Chemical Preservatives?

The types of chemical preservatives used widely in food and personal care products include:

• Parabens – Commonly used as a preservative in cosmetics and personal care products.
• Sodium benzoate – Used as a preservative in acidic foods and beverages.
• Potassium sorbate – Used as a preservative in a wide range of foods, including dairy products, baked goods, and syrups.
• Calcium propionate – Used as a preservative in bread and other baked goods.
• Sodium nitrate/nitrite – Used as a preservative and colour fixative in processed meats such as bacon and deli meats.
• BHA and BHT – Used as preservatives in foods, oils, and cosmetics.
• EDTA – Used as a preservative and chelating agent in cosmetics and personal care products, and in some processed foods.
• Propionic acid – used as a preservative in bread and other baked goods, cheese, and other dairy products.
• Sorbic acid – used as a preservative in a wide range of foods, including dairy products, baked goods, and fruits.
• Sulfites – used as a preservative in dried fruits, wine, and other fermented products.
• Ascorbic acid – used as a preservative and antioxidant in fruits and vegetable juices, jams, and other processed foods.
• Ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid (EDTA) – used as a preservative and chelating agent in cosmetics and personal care products, and in some processed foods.
• Imidazolidinyl urea and Diazolidinyl urea – used as preservatives in cosmetics and personal care products.
• Quaternium-15 and DMDM hydantoin – used as preservatives in cosmetics and personal care products.
• Butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA) and Butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT) – used as preservatives in foods, oils, and cosmetics.
• Phenoxyethanol – used as a preservative in cosmetics and personal care products.
• Caprylyl glycol – used as a preservative in cosmetics and personal care products.
• Phenethyl alcohol – used as a preservative in cosmetics and personal care products.
• Polysorbates – used as emulsifiers in food and personal care products.
• Caprylhydroxamic acid – used as a preservative in cosmetics and personal care products.

This list is by no means exhaustive and other chemical preservatives are used in food, food products, and personal care products too.

What is the most Common Chemical Preservative?

The most common chemical preservatives used in food and personal care products are likely to be parabens, sodium benzoate, and potassium sorbate.

These preservatives are widely used because they are effective at preventing the growth of bacteria, yeast, and mould, and they are considered safe for use in food and personal care products.

Additionally, they are relatively inexpensive and easy to use. Other commonly used preservatives include calcium propionate, sodium nitrate/nitrite, and BHA/BHT.

What are Preservatives Made of?

There are many different types of chemical preservatives, and they can be made from a variety of natural and synthetic ingredients.

Some examples include:
• Natural preservatives – These are derived from natural sources such as vinegar, citric acid, and ascorbic acid. They are commonly used in fruits and vegetables, jams, jellies, and other food products.
• Synthetic preservatives – These are chemical compounds that are created in a laboratory. Some examples include sodium benzoate, potassium sorbate, and parabens. These are widely used in food and personal care products because they are effective at preventing the growth of microorganisms.
• Antioxidants – This group of preservatives are designed to prevent or slow down the oxidation of food. They are commonly used in processed foods, oils, and fats. Examples include BHA, BHT, and propyl gallate.
• Chelating agents – They are used to prevent or slow down the discolouration, spoilage, or loss of nutritional value caused by the presence of heavy metals or minerals in the food. These agents are commonly used in processed foods and personal care products. Examples include EDTA, and citric acid.
• Others – Some preservatives are not so easy to classify, like sulfur dioxide, used in dried fruits and wine, or Nitrates and Nitrites, used in processed meats.

Preservatives should always be used with care and only in the necessary quantity as some of them are considered controversial and some of them are restricted by certain authorities.

Why are Preservatives Added to Foods?

The use of chemical preservatives in food is done to extend their shelf life by preventing or slowing down spoilage caused by bacteria, fungi, and other microorganisms.

This helps to keep food fresh and safe to eat for longer periods, which can be especially important for foods that are packaged or processed and may not be consumed immediately.

Additionally, preservatives can also help to maintain the colour, texture, and flavour of foods over time.

Conclusion

Chemicals used as preservatives are primarily added to a range of products to support a longer shelf life, help deal with transit times, and potentially various factors the products may be exposed to during transport.

Not all of these are things that you want to have in your diet or be exposed to on a day-to-day basis. As more and more research in the space is being done, and apps such as Yuka help uncover what is in the products you are using or consuming, Buyers are becoming more discerning.

We’re all becoming more educated on this topic, and chemical preservatives are things that many of us are opting out of having in our homes for various values-based reasons.

References

  1. “CFR – Code of Federal Regulations Title 21 – Sec. 182.1745 Sodium carboxymethylcellulose” – FDA Staff, Last Updated 29 November 2022 [US Department of Health & Human Services] [Archive] ↩︎
  2. “Sodium nitrate & sodium nitrite” – CSPI Staff, Last Updated 4 January 2021 [CSPI] [Archive] ↩︎
  3. “Encyclopedia of Food Sciences and Nutrition – Sodium Nitrite” pp 269 – B. Caballero, L. C. Trugo, P. M. Finglas, P. Belton, P. B. Ottaway, et al., Second Edition, 25 February 2003 [Academic Press] [Archive] ↩︎
  4. “Encyclopedia of Food Sciences and Nutrition – Nitrate and Nitrite” pp 803 – B. Caballero, L. C. Trugo, P. M. Finglas, P. Belton, P. B. Ottaway, et al., Second Edition, 25 February 2003 [Academic Press] [Archive] ↩︎
  5. “Thirteenth Meeting of the Who Action Network on Salt Reduction in the Population in the European Region (Esan) Meeting Report” – PubChem Staff, 2 September 2021 (PDF Download Links) [WHO] [Archive] ↩︎
  6. “CFR – Code of Federal Regulations Title 21: Sec. 181.33 Sodium nitrate and potassium nitrate” – FDA Staff, 29 November 2022 [FDA] [Archive] ↩︎
  7. “CFR – Code of Federal Regulations Title 21: Sec. 582.3862 Sulfur dioxide.” – FDA Staff, 29 November 2022 [FDA] [Archive] ↩︎
  8. “Adverse reactions to the sulphite additives” – H. Vally, N. LA Misso, 2015 [PubMed] [Archive] ↩︎
  9. “Questions and Answers on the Occurrence of Benzene in Soft Drinks and Other Beverages” – FDA Staff, 25 February 2022 [FDA] [Archive] ↩︎
  10. “Sodium benzoate-induced repeated episodes of acute urticaria/angio-oedema: randomized controlled trial” – E. Nettis, M. C. Colanardi, A. Ferrannini, A. Tursi, October 2004 [PubMed] [Archive] ↩︎
  11. “CFR – Code of Federal Regulations Title 21” – FDA, 17 January 2023 [FDA] [Archive] ↩︎
  12. “Food Additive Status List” – FDA Staff, 25 August 2022 [FDA] [Archive] ↩︎
  13. “Butylated Hydroxyanisole – CAS No. 25013-16-5” – National Toxicology Program, Department of Health and Human Services, 21 December 2021 [Report on Carcinogens] [Archive] ↩︎
  14. “CFR – Code of Federal Regulations Title 21” – FDA Staff, 17 March 2023 [FDA] [Archive] ↩︎

Last Updated on 4 months by D&C Editorial Team

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About the Author

Matthew has been on an active journey towards living a healthy life from a young age. Influenced by his Grandmother, a practicing Naturopath who served her community from the 1940's to the 1980's, his views on living holistically were shaped from a young age. Growing up in different parts of Australia, his connection with the Ocean and a passion for sustainability comes through in everything he does and shares.

"I'm not a Doctor, and I don't play one on the Internet." - me

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