As the name suggests, preservatives are used to preserve food.  Humankind have been finding ways to preserve food since we killed our first woolly mammoth and half of it spoiled because we couldn't eat it quick enough.  Salt, sugar and vinegar have all been used successfully to preserve foods - think dried salted meats, jams and pickles.  Enter the modern age and mass food production and suddenly we need better ways to keep the aisles and aisles of processed food from spoiling too quickly.  Chemical preservatives were developed and they now riddle our food and have funny numbers and codes to hide themselves within ingredients lists.


Preservatives and your Health

Chemical preservatives have been linked to a range of health conditions and some people, particularly young children, are very sensitive.  Allergies, ADHD, migraines, asthma and eczema have all been linked to the preservatives found in food.  Each preservative is given a number, and since 1987 these have been noted in ingredient lists.  Preservative numbers don't mean much to the general public, but for people who have been told by their Health Care Professional or Allergist that they have an allergy or intolerance to a particular food, it becomes extremely important. 

It can be argued that the small amounts of preservatives found in each processed food couldn't have that much impact on your health.  If you were only eating one processed food a week then maybe that might be the case.  Unfortunately for most people, it is the accumulative effect of many foods throughout the course of one day that is the problem.  Take for example the humble breakfast of a spread on a piece of toast - you have preservatives in the spread, the bread and the butter.  The glass of orange juice that you follow it with is full of preservatives also.  Have you ever squeezed yourself a fresh fruit juice and noted that it doesn't retain it's colour and appearance for long and yet the "fresh" fruit juice you buy in the cardboard container can keep for weeks even once opened!! 

Most Common Preservatives

There are many types of preservatives with some functioning as antioxidants, inhibitors of microbial growth or as sequestrants (reduce the ability to cause rancidity in products containing fats).

Sulphites - 220, 221, 222, 223, 224, 225, 226, 227,228

Sulphites are common preservatives found in a huge range of foods including bakery goods, canned vegetables, soup mixes, jams, dried fruit, wine and beer, fresh and cooked deli prawns, cordials, sausages and tea.  They are also extensively used in personal hygiene products such as cosmetics, shampoos, body washes and are also found in several medications.  Sulphites have antioxidant and antimicrobial properties that makes them useful not only to preserve food quality but also the appearance of food.


Sulphites are common triggers for asthma with wheezing, a tight chest and allergic rhinitis being common symptoms.  This is due to the way sulphites work as preservatives - they release sulphur dioxide, which is an irritant gas.  Most people with sulphite sensitivity do not have positive allergy tests and there is currently no reliable blood or skin allergy test to test for sulphite intolerances.  If you suspect you have a reaction to sulphites it is worth excluding them from the diet and from your environment to see if it makes a difference.

Sodium Dioxide - 220

Commonly found in dried fruits, beer, fruit juice, gelatin, wine, soft drink, cordial jam, dairy products, potato products and soup.  It destroys the Vitamin A  naturally found in foods and is known to cause headaches, stomach upsets, nausea and hyperactivity.  Asthmatics would do well to avoid it.

Sodium Nitrate/Nitrite - 250, 251

Nitrates, and the related form nitrites, are used as preservatives, especially to prevent growth of C.botulinum.  Sodium and potassium nitrates and nitrites are used mostly to preserve meat products.  This is why most nutritionists and naturopaths will tell you to avoid eating deli meats and processed and cured meats like salami and sausages.  They also make raw meat have that appealing red colour and they add flavour to meat products like bacon and hot dogs.


Large amounts of sodium nitrite and sodium nitrate upset the digestive system and can cause abdominal pain, gastroenteritis and bloody diarrhoea.  Research has shown links to an increased risk of stomach cancer and consuming excessive amounts may increase your risk of developing Type 2 Diabetes (nitrate reduces your glucose tolerance).  These preservatives also increase your risk of heart disease by delivering salt (the sodium part) and damaging the blood vessels and heart.  (nitrite and nitrate has been shown to do this)

BHA - Butylated Hydroxyanisole and BHT - Butylated Hydroytoluene

Both these substances prevent food from becoming rancid and are added to cereals, vegetable oils, chewing gums and potato chips.  I'd be steering well clear of any food containing these chemicals.  Not that you should be eating potato chips anyway!

Sodium Benzoate - 221

Found in soft drinks, juices, margarine, fast food and some vitamin supplements, sodium benzoate has been linked to hyperactivity and allergy in children.  It can also combine with Vitamin C to form a nasty carcinogenic chemical called benzene - although it is not certain whether this happens in the human body.

Potassium Nitrite - 249

Found in cured meats, meat spread, bacon and sausages.  It destroys red blood cells and is best avoided by people with known breathing difficulties such as asthmatics and emphysema.

MSG - 620, 621, 622, 623, 624, 625, 627, 631, 635

MSG is the abbreviation for a component called monosodium glutamate and it is typically used as a flavour enhance and meat tenderiser.  It comes from the amino acid glutamic acid.  Ever find you just can't just stop at one cheese flavoured corn chip??  That's most likely because they contain MSG.  Some places have massive tubs of the stuff sitting in their kitchens to be used in the cooking. 


Most people will feel really, really thirsty after they eat food containing it.  Those who are sensitive to MSG will often experience a headache and or swelling and redness.  Asthmatics typically should avoid it.

And now for the good news.......

Vitamin C - ascorbic acid  is one preservative that has no known safety issues.  Vitamin C is used to preserve cereals, jams, canned foods and juices.

Last but "Not Least"

My son used to get very hyperactive at times as a child.  My mother-in-law read an article alluding to the fact that yellow food colouring could be a problem.  It turned out to be exactly the case.  He loved corn chips.  His behaviour improved immensely once we took away the corn chips and checked for the preservative number 102 on food labels after that.  Other food colouring numbers to avoid are:

Red 120

Blue 133

Yellow 102


Date posted: 2013-09-15 | posted by: debras

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