That’s because they can “prevent spoilage, improve appearance and texture, and maintain the food’s nutritional quality,” said registered dietitian Novella Lui.
It’s not just fast food restaurants using artificial preservatives, either.
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“They’re commonly found in processed foods we purchase at grocery stores,” said Stephanie Hnatiuk, another registered dietitian.
There are also natural preservatives — like salt, sugar, vinegar and citrus juice — but using them usually comes at a higher cost to the food manufacturer.
Artificial preservatives help “decrease the price of that food product for the consumer,” Hnatiuk said.
But alongside these benefits, there may be some health concerns that come along with artificial preservatives.
What are artificial preservatives?
According to Lui, artificial preservatives are chemical substances that get added to food during the manufacturing process.
Some of the most popular are sodium benzoate, sorbic acid, butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA) and butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT).
“Sodium benzoate is a preservative and microbial agent used in tomato products, pickles, sauces, fruits, fruit salads, jams, cider, salad dressing, and some meat and poultry products,” said Lui.
On labels, sorbic acid is sometimes called calcium sorbate or potassium sorbate.
“[It’s] a preservative used in jams, cold-processed smoked and salted fish paste, concentrate juice (except frozen concentrate juice), minced meat, marmalade with pectin, jam, syrup, pickles, relishes, smoked or salted dried fish, ketchup, tomato paste, tomato puree, margarine and salad dressing.”
BHA and BHT are preservatives with “antioxidant properties,” Lui explained.
“They help fats stay fresh longer by preventing the oils from becoming rancid.”
They’re used in fats and oils, potato chips, dried breakfast cereals, parboiled rice and chewing gum.
Are artificial preservatives bad for you?
Some artificial preservatives, such as nitrites or nitrates used in processed meats, have been shown to be bad for our health, Hnatiuk said.
“Consuming these preservatives has been shown to increase our risk of colon cancer and should be limited in our diets,” she said.
However, others have been studied extensively and proven to be safe.
“It really just depends on the specific ingredient in question,” she explained.
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Lui agrees, and adds that the quantity of the ingredient also matters.
“Some animal and test-tube studies suggest that BHA and BHT may be harmful as they may increase one’s risk for cancer,” she said. “The use of BHA and BHT is restricted in Europe, [but] Health Canada has deemed these preservatives safe for use in small quantities in foods.”
The Food and Drugs Act outlines the amount and the type of additives that are safe for use in foods sold in Canada.
“Under normal circumstances, if preservatives are only consumed in small quantities, they shouldn’t pose any health risk,” Lui said.
In an effort to avoid artificial preservatives, some people try to use natural preservatives. However, according to Hnatiuk, natural doesn’t always mean healthier.
“For example, alternative preservatives that are ‘all natural’ can include things like sugar and salt,” she said. “We know that excess amounts of these in our diets aren’t healthy for us, even if they do come from natural sources.”
Choosing to use natural preservatives can also be more expensive.
“Consumers are only willing to pay so much for a fast food meal, and it has to taste good in order to sell,” said Hnatiuk.
Should you avoid artificial preservatives?
Actively avoiding artificial preservatives is a personal choice, said Lui.
“When consumed in small amounts, they shouldn’t pose any health risk… but how much is too much to affect one’s health is still debatable,” she said.
“Therefore, it’s best to limit processed and take-out foods, like snacks, sweets and fast foods. Eat more fresh and minimally processed foods, which have fewer to no additives and are more nutritious overall.”
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She also recommends making your own meals at home with whole foods like vegetables and fruits, whole grains, eggs, fish, poultry and legumes.
If you do want to avoid artificial preservatives, you can do so by closely examining package labels.
“These ingredients are usually listed at the very end of the list as they are only used in small quantities,” said Lui.
“For grab-and-go meals from grocery stores and delis, you can check the expiration date on the packaging. To avoid preservatives… choose the ones that are made with 100 per cent organic ingredients.”