The benefits of preservatives in our food

“Our product without preservatives” – proudly flaunts on every second package in the supermarket. As a food technologist and chemist, I always think: “Well, well, we found something to be proud of.”

Let’s look at preservatives from the point of view of chemistry as a science. Are they so dangerous and unacceptable in the composition? Let’s start with the elementary truths.

Why are preservatives needed

Not a single food supplement with an E code is actually put into food just like that, from the bulldozer. Every supplement has a function.

Some, for example, inhibit fat oxidation. And they are proudly called antioxidants or antioxidants. Others create the structure of the product, prevent it from stratifying and looking unappetizing. We call them stabilizers and emulsifiers. Preservatives are also not scary substances. They are designed to protect our food from those who want to eat it. Namely, from microorganisms. Yes, our food is attractive to them too. Bacteria, mold, and the toxins they produce are all things we wouldn’t want to find in food, right?

In order to prevent the food from spoiling ahead of time, we use preservatives. It is important to clarify that these are substances that will harm our microscopic friends, but they will not harm ourselves. Otherwise what’s the use of them?

Nobody “pours chemistry” beyond measure. Because A – supplements cost money, and in industries they can count and B – there is a certain safe dosage for each supplement. It makes no sense to exceed it. First, you can easily spoil the taste of the product. Secondly, if we know that substance X works well with both 0.1% and 0.3%, then we will add 0.1%. Like the old ad: “Why pay more?” It is not fools that work at the factories, as “Yksperty” is trying to expose.

Most often, articles about how everything is bad with us and how GMO cockroaches are put into sausages are written not by food experts and people from the industry. And those who have not seen the production in the eyes and do not know what standards are applied there and how the quality control system works. Most likely, such “authors” remembered chemistry for the last time in school.

Alas, inaccurate “horror stories” and myths about food are common. It sells well. People are more receptive to frightening and disturbing information. “We are being bullied”, “nothing can be eaten”, “industrial food is dangerous.” Often materials about food technologies and additives are generally made using the copy paste method . Pull on more terrible facts, a mound of clever terms – and that’s it, success is guaranteed.

That is why it seems so important to me to talk about the food industry from the inside. In this I see the task of the blog . How does it actually work? What and why do we add to products? What are we referring to and what is scientifically proven? Information without sources should be taken extremely critically. And always ask the question: “What is the author leaning on now? On your own speculation or on data and facts? ”

This brings us to the most important point about scary E-s in food.

Additives marked E

All supplements that have been assigned an E-code are actually researched, tested and proven to be safe. Yes, it goes against what they tell us on TV, in the media and fashion blogs. “Avoid food chemicals, especially E-shek.” As a chemist, I always sigh: We ourselves are chemistry. We are made up of chemicals. All substances in the universe are of a chemical nature. There is no getting away from this. And if you are offered a product “without chemistry,” then we are talking, at least, about matter unexplored by science! Do you really want to eat IT?

Our fears and lack of knowledge are densely mixed here. In my blog, I regularly talk about chemophobia and how it prevents us from living peacefully. Hemophobia is the irrational fear of any chemistry. The word “chemistry” is automatically equated to “dangerous toxic chemicals” and causes confusion. But we consume chemistry every day. Water is dihydrogen monoxide, table salt is sodium chlorine. All proteins are composed of amino acids, one of which, by the way, is called glutamic acid. Its combination with sodium gives us monosodium glutamate. The same demonic enhancer of taste that scares everyone. And which is actually not dangerous in food.

It’s amazing how easy it is to get around this fear! Let’s call a substance not by its E-code, but in simple words. Not E330, but citric acid. Not E160, but understandable beta- carotene from healthy carrots. We should clearly distinguish between the concept of “pesticide” and simply “chemistry”. Because chemistry is just the science of substances, their structure and properties. These substances can be useful and vital. Or they can be neutral or poisonous for us.

Therefore, there is a classification of food additives. This is an international standard, which contains all those substances that we can put in food and not be afraid. The standards are determined by the Joint Expert Committees of the International Agricultural Organization JECFA [1]. And also the Codex Alimentarius, which was adopted by the FAO / WHO international commission. These are documents that are in open sources. Here, for example, you can read how food additives are tested for safety, how their toxicity and mutagenicity are studied, how often it is necessary to reassess [2]. In short, the most complete information on how a substance is recognized as safe in food.

And it is precisely those substances that have repeatedly confirmed their safety that the E-code is assigned. E – from the word Europe. There is also a version that from the English. Edible – edible. But my blog readers and I joke that E is from the word Eating. How else to explain the fear of them?

The classification was created in the early 1960s just in order to clarify and unambiguous: These are food additives that can be used, these are the numbers assigned to them, these are their safe daily doses. And all over the world now E300 means the same thing. Whether we are in Russia, in Australia or in the EU countries. And yes, E300 is just ascorbic acid. And how scary it sounds when she has an E-shka!


We distinguish several groups of food additives depending on their functionality. One of them is just preservatives. Take, for example, the two most common preservatives – sodium benzoate E211 and potassium sorbate E202. Having met them on the product packaging, you may wonder: “Is it worth it at all? They poured their chemistry here! ”

Sodium benzoate is a salt of benzoic acid. Chemists are generally bad with beautiful positioning. The word “benzoin” is associated with gasoline and already looks repulsive. But in fact, benzoic acid has nothing to do with gasoline. It is a naturally occurring compound found in many fruits and berries. Cranberries are especially rich in benzoic acid. Cranberries do not know our troubles and fears. It produces benzoic acid as a defense against microorganisms. In acidic environments, bezoic acid successfully prevents mold growth. And the only thing that cranberries need is to protect themselves and not let themselves be eaten.

Naturally, it does not accumulate anywhere in the body, as opponents of preservatives like to write. And it binds to the amino acid glycine and is excreted in the form of hippuric acid through the kidneys [3]. If we did not know how to metabolize benzoic acid and its salts, then we could not eat fruits or berries without harming ourselves.

Potassium sorbate is also a salt, but another organic acid, sorbic. The story is similar: sorbic acid is produced naturally by berries and fruits. It successfully inhibits the growth of mold, prevents microorganisms from developing. Naturally approved by all food additive safety organizations .

Man actually did not invent and create much himself. We have “spied” many food additives in nature. And they learned to use it for their own good. If cranberries can, why can’t we? The safe dosage of sodium benzoate (like any food additive with the E-code) is calculated in such a way that even if it is exceeded a hundredfold, it will not cause harm. This is how the permissible daily intake for the ADI substance is calculated [5]. And you still have to try to exceed ADI !

According to our laws, it is allowed to add no more than 2 g per 1 kg of product [6]. For a separate category of liquid egg products, a value of no more than 5 g per 1 kg is set due to the increased risk of bacterial contamination. As the saying goes, hello salmonella!

That is, there will be 2 grams of benzoate in a kilogram of conditional mayonnaise. And if you eat a kilo of mayonnaise, you will probably feel bad. But not because of benzoate, believe me. There is no risk of “overeating food supplement”. Even if it is in all the foods you eat regularly. I repeat that the norms are not calculated from the bulldozer. Unless you eat it neat with spoons. It all depends on the dosage. And vitamin C can be poisoned. And you can drink so much water that death will come. This condition is called overhydration. Alas, cases of water overdose have been repeatedly recorded [7] [8].

TOP 3 misconceptions about preservatives

  1. “Preservatives are put in stale food.” This is absolutely not how it works. Quite the opposite. If the product is ALREADY microbiologically seeded, preservatives will not help. Most food preservatives inhibit the growth of bacteria and mold. This is called bacteriostatic action. But if the microflora has already happily multiplied and feels great, banal benzoate will not help here. In addition, no decent, large-scale production would risk the reputation and health of customers by selling products that were known to be spoiled. Who will buy from them a second time if everyone gets poisoned?
  2. “Good food doesn’t last long.” Yes Yes. And the milk should turn sour on the third day. Throughout human history, we have looked for ways to preserve food for a long time. Salt, dry, sugar to survive the hungry times. Salt, sugar, vinegar, cooking were our friends. We now have a huge range of proven safe preservatives. And other processing methods: pasteurization, sterilization, freezing in the end. And are we going to roll back? In times where food was scarce and quickly deteriorated? Some kind of degradation and denial of the benefits of progress, don’t you think?

Thanks to scientific knowledge, food is now stored as long as we need it. And not how much it turns out. We do not rely on random factors, but control the process ourselves. To prevent the milk from spoiling for a long time, we pasteurize or sterilize it. That is, we kill unnecessary microflora by heat treatment. To prevent sauce, desserts or fish products from spoiling, we use safe and approved preservatives wisely. And it’s great, it’s worth celebrating.

If the manufacturer boasts that he did not put in preservatives and his product is stored for only three days, I have big questions for him. What microflora ALREADY exists there, that it will have time to “eat” my food in a couple of days? How did you take care of the safety of the food, and what did you do to prevent anyone from getting caught in it?

  1. “From preservatives, allergies and indigestion.” First, allergies or individual intolerances can happen from anything. There are lists of the most common food allergens: soy, lupine, nuts, etc. [9] Of the preservatives, only sulfur dioxide and sulfites are included. And then, at a dosage of 10 mg per 1 kg. But this does not mean their absolute harm. Eggs and sesame seeds are also more likely to cause allergies than other foods. But this does not mean that a healthy person should avoid them. Second, there is no proven link between indigestion and any preservative used in food. At the moment, we know what substances and in what quantity can be put into food. And for a healthy person who eats varied and intelligently, they are not harmful.
local_offerevent_note February 6, 2021

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