“Our product is preservative-free” is proudly displayed on every other package in the supermarket. As a food technologist and chemist, I always think: ‘Well, well, we have something to be proud of’.
Let’s look at preservatives from the perspective of chemistry as a science. Are they so dangerous and unacceptable in composition? Let’s start with the platitudes.
Why preservatives are needed
No E-code food additive is actually put into food just from the push of a button. Every additive has a function.
Some, for example, inhibit fat oxidation. They are proudly called antioxidants. Others build up the structure of the product, preventing it from segregating and giving it an unappetising appearance. We call them stabilizers and emulsifiers. Preservatives are also not terrible substances. They are designed to protect our food from those who want to eat it. Namely, germs. Yes, they find our food attractive, too. Bacteria, moulds and the toxins they produce are all things we wouldn’t want to find in food, right?
In order to prevent food from spoiling prematurely, we use preservatives. It’s important to clarify that these are substances that will damage our microscopic friends but won’t harm ourselves. Otherwise, what good would they be?
Nobody “dumps the chemicals” in excessive amounts. Because A – additives cost money, and the factories know how to count and B – there is a certain safe dosage for each additive. There is no point in exceeding it. Firstly, you can easily ruin the taste of the product. Secondly, if we know that substance X works well at both 0.1% and 0.3%, we will add 0.1%. Like the old commercial: “Why pay more?”. Manufacturing is by no means a fool’s errand, as the “experts” try to make it out to be.
Most of the time it’s not food experts or people from the industry who write articles about how everything in our country is bad and that GMO cockroaches are put in our sausages. But those who have not seen the production and do not know what standards are applied there and how the quality control system works. Most likely, the last time such “authors” remembered chemistry was at school.
Alas, misleading “horror stories” and myths about food are common. It sells well. People are better at absorbing frightening and disturbing information. “We’re being poisoned”, “you can’t eat anything”, “industrial food is dangerous”. A lot of the stuff about food technology and additives is made by copy paste. Just get some uglier facts and clever terms and you’re done.
That’s why I think it’s so important to talk about the food industry from the inside. That’s what I see as the challenge of the blog. How does it really work? What do we put in our products and why? What do we refer to and what is scientifically proven? Information without sources should be taken extremely critically. And always ask the question: “What is the author relying on now? On your own speculation or on data and facts?”
So we come to the most important point about the dreaded E-rations in food.
All additives given an E-code have actually been studied, tested and proven safe. Yes, this goes against what we are told on TV, in the media and on trendy blogs. “Avoid chemistry in food, especially E-cakes.” As a chemist, I always sigh: We ourselves are chemistry. We are made up of chemicals. All substances in the universe are chemical in nature. There’s no getting away from it. And if you are offered a product “without chemistry”, then it’s at least matter unexplored by science! Are you sure you want to eat that?
Our fears and lack of knowledge are tightly mixed in here. On the blog, I regularly talk about chemophobia and how it prevents us from living our lives in peace. Chemophobia is an irrational fear of all chemistry. The word ‘chemistry’ is automatically equated with ‘dangerous chemicals’ and causes consternation. But we consume chemicals every day. Water is dihydrogen monoxide and table salt is sodium chloride. All proteins are composed of amino acids, one of which, incidentally, is called glutamic acid. It combines with sodium to give us sodium glutamate. The kind of demonic flavour enhancer that scares everybody. And which isn’t actually dangerous in food.
It’s amazing how easy it is to get around that fear! Let’s not call the substance by its E-code, but in simple terms. Not E330, but citric acid. Not E160, but the obvious beta-carotene from healthy carrots. We should clearly distinguish between “pesticide” and simply “chemistry”. Because chemistry is simply the science of substances, their structure and their properties. These substances can be useful and vital. Or they can be neutral or poisonous to us.
That is why there is a classification of food additives. This is an international standard, spelling out all the substances that we can put in our food and not be afraid of. The standards are defined by the Joint Committee of Experts of the International Agricultural Organization JECFA . And also the Codex Alimentarius which is adopted by the international commission of FAO/WHO. These are documents that are available in the public domain. Here, for example, one can read how food additives are tested for safety, how their toxicity and mutagenicity are studied, how often they need to be re-evaluated . In short, as much information as possible on how a substance is deemed safe to eat.
And it is those substances that have been repeatedly proven safe that are assigned the E-code. E stands for Europe. There is also a version that comes from Edible. But my blog readers and I joke that E is from the word Edible. How else to explain the fear of them?
The classification was created in the early 1960s precisely to make it clear: this is how food additives can be used, this is how they are numbered, this is how safe their daily doses are. And all over the world, E300 now means the same thing. Whether in Russia, Australia or the EU. And yes, E300 is just ascorbic acid. And how scary it sounds when it has an E-thing!
We distinguish several groups of food additives based on their functionality. One of them is precisely preservatives. Let’s take for example the two most common preservatives – sodium benzoate E211 and potassium sorbate E202. When you see them on the product packaging, you might wonder: “Is it worth it at all? They’re full of their own chemicals!”
Sodium benzoate is a salt of benzoic acid. Chemists in general are not very good at beautiful positioning. The word “benzoic” is associated with petrol and already looks repulsive. But in fact benzoic acid has nothing to do with petrol. It’s a naturally occurring compound found in many fruits and berries. Cranberries in particular are rich in benzoic acid. Cranberries don’t know our worries and fears. They produce benzoic acid as protection against microorganisms. In an acidic environment, benzoic acid successfully prevents mould growth. And cranberries just need to protect themselves and keep themselves from getting eaten.
Naturally, it does not accumulate anywhere in the body, as the opponents of preservatives like to write. It binds with the amino acid glycine and is excreted as hippuric acid via the kidneys .If we could not metabolize benzoic acid and its salts, we could not eat fruits and berries without harming ourselves.
Potassium sorbate is also a salt, but of a different organic acid, sorbic acid. The story is similar: sorbic acid is produced by berries and fruits in nature. It successfully inhibits mould growth and prevents micro-organisms from developing. Naturally, it is approved by all organisations controlling the safety of food additives. 
Man hasn’t really invented and created much himself. Many food additives we have “picked up” from nature. And learned how to use them for our own good. If cranberries can do it, why can’t we? The safe dosage of sodium benzoate (as well as any food additive with E-code) is calculated in such a way that even a hundredfold excess will not cause harm. This is how the permitted daily intake of ADI is calculated . And you have to try hard to exceed the ADI!
According to our laws, it is allowed to add no more than 2 g per 1 kg of product . For a separate category of liquid egg products a value of not more than 5 g per 1 kg is set due to an increased risk of bacterial contamination. As they say, hello Salmonella!
That is, a kilo of mayonnaise would have 2 grams of benzoate in it. And if you eat a kilo of mayonnaise, you will probably feel sick. But not because of benzoate, believe me. There is no risk of “overeating the food additive”. Even if it’s in all the foods you eat regularly. Again, the standards are not calculated off the top of my head. Unless you eat it in its pure form by the spoonful. It all depends on the dosage. And you can get vitamin C poisoning. And you can drink so much water that you can die. It’s called hyperhydration. Alas, cases of water overdose have been recorded many times .
Top 3 misconceptions about preservatives
“Preservatives are put in stale food”. That’s absolutely not how it works. Exactly the opposite is true. If the food is ALREADY microbiologically contaminated, preservatives won’t help. Most food preservatives inhibit the growth of bacteria and mould. This is called bacteriostatic action. But if the microflora is already happily multiplying and doing fine, banal benzoate won’t help. In addition, no big, decent manufacturer would risk their reputation and the health of their customers by selling knowingly tainted products. Who would buy from them a second time if everyone was poisoned?
“Good food doesn’t last long.” Right, right. And milk should go sour on the third day. Throughout history, we’ve looked for ways to preserve food for a long time. To salt it, to dry it, to candy it, to survive the famine. Salt, sugar, vinegar and heat treatment have been our friends. Now we have a huge range of proven safe preservatives. And other processing methods: pasteurisation, sterilisation, freezing after all. And are we going to go backwards? Back to a time when food was scarce and spoiled quickly? Some kind of degradation and denial of the benefits of progress, don’t you think?
Thanks to scientific knowledge, food is now stored for as long as we need it. Not as much as we can get. We don’t rely on random factors, we control the process ourselves. We pasteurise or sterilise the milk to keep it from spoiling for a long time. In other words, we kill unwanted microflora by heat treatment. So that sauces, desserts and fish products don’t go bad, we use safe and approved preservatives. And that’s great and something to be happy about.
To prevent sauce, desserts or fish products from going bad, we use safe and authorised preservatives in a sensible way
But if a manufacturer brags that they didn’t put preservatives in and their product only keeps for three days, I have big questions for them. What kind of microflora is ALREADY in there that can “eat” my food in a couple of days? How did you take care of the safety of the food product and what did you do to make sure it didn’t get any in it?
“Preservatives give you allergies and indigestion.” Firstly, allergies or individual intolerance can happen from anything. There are lists of the most common food allergens: soy, lupine, nuts etc.  The only preservatives listed are sulfur dioxide and sulfites. And that in the dosage of 10 mg per 1 kg. This does not mean that they are harmful. Eggs and sesame seeds are also more frequently allergenic than other foods. This does not mean that they should be avoided in every healthy person. Secondly, there is no proven link between stomach upset and any preservative used in food. At this point, we know what substances can be put in food and in what quantities. And for a healthy person, eating a varied and sensible diet, they are not harmful.
Preservatives are our friends, not our enemies. It’s great that we have learned how to use them and know how to protect our food from encroachment. And please, don’t be afraid of chemistry in any form. Fear ignorance! This is something that can really do harm.