Food additives and food preservatives: Are they safe to add tour diet?

As foodborne illnesses continue to emerge throughout the world, consumers and producers are beginning to realize the importance of proper food processing and manufacturing. Negligence of any company in the packaging or process of food products can result in illness and death.

The good thing is that; various preservation techniques have come into play to allow food companies to increase the shelf life of food products and consequently lower the risk of food-borne illness. However, consumers still have a lot of skepticism and confusion about the safety of food additives and food preservatives.

In this article, we are going to break down food additives and food preservatives, the difference between the two, their certification, and the effect food additives and food preservatives have on your health.

What are food additives?

A Food additive is a generic term given to substances that manufacturers added to food products to improve safety, freshness, taste, texture, color, and enhance flavor. The common additives used in food include; salt, vinegar, sweeteners, citric acid, and food coloring.

The United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) defines additives as “any substance, the intended use of which results or may reasonably be expected to result, directly or indirectly, in its becoming a component or otherwise affecting the characteristics of any food.”

Food additives may be synthetic or got from plants, animals, and minerals. They are added intentionally to food to perform a specific job such as making food safer, preserving nutritional quality, or make food more appealing.

The two major categories of food additives 

The first category is that of antioxidants and preserving agents. These limit the degeneration of food. Antioxidants prevent the oxidation of food, which leads to rancidity and loss of color. Preservatives limit or stop the growth of microorganisms such as bacteria, yeasts, molds in the food, or those entering food. Acids, acidity regulators, and packaging gases fall in this category.

The other category is that of additives that modify texture and improves the sensory qualities of foodstuffs. These include; Texturing agents, Emulsifiers, stabilizers, thickening agents, anticoagulants, anti-foaming agents, sweeteners, Colouring agents, and Flavour enhancers that accentuate the taste of food.

The European Union developed a system called ‘E number’ where the main categories of additives are given unique numbers. This helps to interpret the name of food additives on their packaging materials. For example; E300 refers to L-ascorbic acid.

Examples of commonly used food additives  

Monosodium glutamate (MSG)Opens in a new tab.: This is used to enhance the savory flavor of dishes.

Artificial food coloring (dyes): These are added to improve the appearance of food from candies to condiments.

Guar Gum: This is a long-chain carbohydrate used by food industries to thicken and bind foods. It is high in fiber and according to researchOpens in a new tab.; Guar Gum can help symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome-like bloating and constipation.

Artificial sweeteners: include aspartame, sucralose, and saccharin.

Trans fat: This is unsaturated fat that has undergone hydrogenation. It is used to increase the shelf life of products.

Sodium nitrate: This additive is common in processed meats. It prevents the growth of bacteria. However, this should be used in moderation. ResearchOpens in a new tab. shows that a higher intake of nitrates may increase the risk of stomach cancer

Xanthan Gum: This additive is commonly used to thicken and stabilize food products like salad dressings, soups, syrups, and sauces.

Sodium benzoate: This is added to carbonated drinks and acidic foods to increase shelf life. It is common in salad dressings, pickles, fruit juices, and condiments.

What are preservatives?

Food preservatives are a type of additives used by food processing companies to slow the growth of dangerous microbes and protect food from spoilage or contamination. Preservatives ensure that processed food remains safe and in good condition through the supply chain to the final consumer.

Food items like beef and cheese are ideal breeding grounds for microbes. Also, moisture and protein are potential microbe magnets. When a rancid product is consumed, it may lead to sickness and death.

Preservatives, therefore, delay the growth of fungi, bacteria, and yeasts in a number of processed foods beginning from baked goods to dairy and beverages.

What are the two major categories of food preservatives?

Food preservatives are categorized into antioxidantsOpens in a new tab. and antimicrobialsOpens in a new tab..


These delay deterioration of food products by oxidative mechanisms. Oxidation of food products is the addition of an oxygen atom or removal of a hydrogen atom from chemical molecules that make up food. This contributes to off-flavors and off-odors, the characteristic of oxidative rancidity.

Antioxidants, therefore, react with free radicals to slow the rate of oxidation. The common examples of antioxidants include;

  • Ascorbic acid which is the common oxygen scavenger
  • BHA, BHT, TBHQ, and Tocopherols which are free radical scavengersOpens in a new tab.
  • Enzyme inhibitors such as citric acid and sulfites

These mainly inhibit the growth of spoilage and pathogenic microorganisms in food.

Examples of antimicrobial food preservatives include;

  • Sodium chloride (common salt)
  • Organic acids like aceticOpens in a new tab.benzoicOpens in a new tab., propionic, and sorbic acids limit the growth of microorganisms in products with a low ph.
  • Nitrates and nitrites:  Inhibit the growth of bacterium “Clostridium botulinum in cured meats like ham, and bacon.
  • Sulfur dioxideOpens in a new tab. and sulfitesOpens in a new tab.: Limit the growth of microorganisms in dried fruits, fruit juices, and wines.
  • Nisin slows the growth of bacteria
  • Natamycin fights against molds and yeasts.

What is the difference between food preservatives and food additives? 

From the discussions above, it is clear that a food additive is a general term to mean a chemical compound added to food to affect the character of the food during food process and storage.

However, preservatives are a subset of food additives. They are a type of food additive that inhibits the growth of bacteria, yeasts, and molds in foods to limit spoilage or contamination.

Are food preservatives and additives safe? 

Food additives and food preservatives are strictly studied, regulated, and monitored by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Regardless of the nutritional value an additive contributes, until it has been declared safe for use by the U.S. Department of Food and Drug Administration (FDA), it cannot be used in any food product.

In a nutshell, food additives and food preservatives are safe for most people. Some additives like ascorbic acid are even said to improve human health. Ascorbic acid that is used to enhance color in meat and nutrition in beverages is not any different from vitamin C, which can manage colds.

Alpha-tocopherol, an additive used to preserve oils is vitamin E. Vitamin E is said to reduce the risk of cancer and heart disease.

How are additives approved for use in food? 

The world health organization (WHO) in conjunction with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) is in charge of assessing the risks to human health associated with food additives. Risk assessment is done by the Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA).

JECFA evaluations involve human and animal studies, observations, mandatory tests, and scientific reviews on biochemical and toxicological data on a given food additive.

The toxicological tests involve short-term and long-term assessment of how the food additive is absorbed, distributed, and excreted, and possible harmful effects of the additive.

Only food additives that have been found to have no health risks to consumers under JECFA can be used. This is independent of the source of the additives. Be it natural or synthetic.

After the evaluations by JECFA, what is next is to establish an acceptable daily intake (ADI). This is the amount of an additive that can be safely consumed daily without any harm to health.

This is done by the joint intergovernmental food standard-setting body of FAO and WHO called the Codex Alimentarius Commission. After the maximum use levels are set in the Codex General Standard for Food Additives, actual use of the food additive is permitted.

Health benefits of food additives and food preservatives 

  • Food additives improve or maintain the nutritional value of food. An example is Ascorbic acidOpens in a new tab. which adds vitamin C and Alpha-tocopherol which is vitamin E.
  • Additives increase the shelf life of food
  • Food additives are lower in calories. For example, it is safer to use a sweetener instead of sugar

The problem with food additives and food preservatives

Most food additives are safe to use as evaluated by the FDA. However, some additives have been associated with adverse reactions in some people. Some of these hypersensitive reactions include;

  • Digestive disorders like diarrhea and colicky pains
  • Nervous disorders such as hyperactivity, insomnia, and irritability
  • Respiratory problems like asthma, rhinitis, and sinusitis
  • Skin problems such as hives, itching, rashes, and swelling

Some examples of additives with reactions include;

1. Sulfites, which are normally added to baked goods, wine, condiments, and snacks, may cause hives, nausea, diarrhea, and shortness of breath in some individuals.

2. BHAOpens in a new tab. is an additive used in foods like potato chips, crackers, beer, baked goods, and cereal. It has been anticipated to be a human carcinogen.Opens in a new tab.

Note that some of the above reactions can be instigated by other disorders. You, therefore, need to visit a medical personal before you restrict foods containing additives otherwise, you may restrict your diet unnecessarily.

The alternative to food additives and food preservatives/ how can we avoid them

The alternative to food additives and preservatives can be natural food flavoring and preservatives that constitute traditional forms of cooking and food preservation. These can destroy the microorganisms in the food or make the environment unsuitable for their growth.

Some of these alternatives include;

1. Deep freezing

Preserving cooked food at very low temperatures like – 18 degrees Celsius eliminates almost all microbes.

We have an article on how to store food in the refrigerator, you can get it hereOpens in a new tab.

2. Drying

Sun and wind drying is the most efficient way you can preserve food. Drying concentrates soluble ingredients in the food to inhibit the growth of microbes.

3. Pasteurizing

This is the heat treatment meant to kill the bacteria in milk. The milk is heated for 15 seconds at 72 degrees Celsius and then quickly cooled to 10 degrees Celsius.

4. Pickling

This is a food preservation method applied to vegetables, fish, eggs meat, and fruits. The most commonly used pickling agent is vinegar with 4 to 6 % acidity.

5. Canning

This is where food is sealed in a container to inhibit recontamination

6. Salting

Salt is one of the oldest natural food preservatives. The pure salts used in salting include; pickling salt, kosher salt, and daily salt.

Alternative food flavoring techniques include;

  •  Salting
  • Cooking with spices: GarlicOpens in a new tab. can enhance the flavor of your dish. Secondly, research shows that garlic has anti-viral properties. It can inhibit bacterial growth.
  • Adding umamiOpens in a new tab. to your cooking

Other ways to reduce your family’s exposure to indirect or unintended additives include;

  • Buying and serving fresh or frozen fruits and vegetables
  • Reduce the intake of processed meats like hot dogs and ham
  • Clean plastic food containers or utensils by hand as opposed to dishwashers. These can leak BPA and phthalates into food.
  • Limit microwave foods and beverages
  • Use glass and stainless steel whenever possible to avoid contamination from rusting.
  • Wash your hands before eating because chemicals from plastic and other objects we touch can contaminate our hands.
Bottom line

Food additives are chemical compounds added to food to either improve safety or enhance flavor or other characteristics of food. Preservatives on the other hand are a type of food additive that inhibits the growth of bacteria, yeasts, and molds in foods.

Food additives and preservatives have been deemed safe for consumption by the FDA, although there are a few reactions or side effects in some people.

To limit the consumption of food additive, cut back on processed and packaged foods and eat more fresh foods such as fruits

Last but not least, always read ingredient labels on products when you go grocery shopping. This way, you can always take control of your diet and know what should or should not be added to your diet.


Sign up for the newsletter to receive healthy foods and their benefits directly to your inbox.









Recent Posts