Are you worried about the effects of preservatives in food? Do you often look at nutrition labels and wonder if there was an easy way to decode the ingredient list? Can the same product be made without preservatives? What you worry about is a common worry about many parents.
I have written this post in response to one of my reader’s request. She wanted a simple explanation of the common food preservatives used and examples of food products that use/don’t use them.
I cannot list the names of all the preservatives used by the food industry, (too many types and variations) but, I can give you the most common ones to look out for:
- Sorbates (e.g. sodium sorbate, potassium sorbate)
- Benzoates (e.g. sodium benzoate, benzoic acid)
- Nitrites (e.g. sodium nitrite)
- Sodium Sulfite
- Propyl Paraben
- BHA And BHT
Is there a need for preservatives?
There was a time, before all this commercialization, (200 years ago) that foods were preserved with naturally available ingredients or processes – salt (think Indian pickles), sugar (think jams), drying (think vadam, papad, etc), fermentation (yogurt). There were constraints to this approach. You could store wheat flour for months, but the moment you make bread or roti, you had to eat it within a day or two.
But, as humans, that was never going to enough, right? For better or worse, we have to constantly tinker, it is in our DNA. Food companies started selling us more and more products with more preservatives. But, should we resign our fate to those products and say, “Oh, well..what can we do??” ….I say, “No way!!”
Food without preservatives is possible!!
A few years ago, there was a big backlash to preservatives in US after the release of Michael Pollan’s book “In defense of food” + consumer activists asking for better food products.
Canning, freezing, salting, fermenting are all already existing technologies that do not use preservatives. There are also lots of exciting, new technologies developed to preserve foods – For e.g., ‘High Pressure Packaging’ that kills germs using high pressure – Whoa!! How cool is that!! So, food companies can make this happen. If we, as consumers, vote with our wallets, then they, in turn, will produce high quality products to cater to the consumers.
So, there are lots of products that are available now, that does not have preservatives. But, how do you, as a consumer, identify the good versus bad products? Here is my pictorial tutorial to help you get started.
Buy This, Not That
Buy Breads that have the names of the grains and very little else. Always buy bread from a shop that gets fresh bread delivered every few days. Otherwise, given the water content in bread (~38%), it will not survive more days without added preservatives or unless they have special packaging capabilities.
A long list of chemicals to make bread last longer:
Note- If you want to preserve bread longer than a few days, freeze the bread instead of refrigerating them. It will last longer!!
In the past, the whole point of making jams was to preserve fruits using sugar as your preservative. A good jam may also contain pectin and ascorbic acid, and that is ok – since pectin is found in apples and acts as a thickener and ascorbic acid is like a stronger version of lemon juice.
Avoid jams that have preservatives. Another tip – Just because a brand has been around forever, does not mean it is the best. Kissan Jam makes use of preservatives, and given its brand dominance, the company can definitely research and pursue all-natural products.
Yogurt is a fermented product. It does not need preservatives. But for various cost cutting reasons or to market new flavors, a company may choose to use preservatives.
A company may have a thousand reasons to sell you products with preservatives, the bottom line is that you don’t have to buy it.
For example, the very same brand -Yoplait, offers products with and without preservatives. Reject complicated yogurt products that has ingredients like pottasium sorbate etc listed in the ingredients and choose good quality ones.
Example of a clean yogurt
Yogurt with preservatives
Most cereals have BHA and BHT added to preserve freshness. Now, you can either get into a rabbit hole of “are they really that bad”??, or buy granolas or cereals that do not have them.
Granola without preservatives
Making granolas at home are super easy too, if store bought granolas are draining your wallet.
Even large food companies like General Mills, are also looking to remove BHT’s based on consumer pushback, read their statement here.
Cereal without preservatives
Cereal with preservatives
But large companies still also sell cereals that use preservatives, especially kids flavors. And we have not even discussed artificial colors and flavors yet, that’s another long post in itself…
When you can find good quality coconut water cans that does not use preservatives…
When you can find good quality coconut cream or coconut milk cans that does not use preservatives…
Ok, this one is just mind-boggling to me. You are already storing ice-creams in a frozen environment. Why the heck do you need to add a gazillion ingredients, with added preservatives???
Buy these types:
These are just a few examples to get you started. But main takeaway here:
ALWAYS READ LABELS!!
I know that it is a little confusing in the beginning. But, constantly turning food products around, to read their labels will make you more confident in the products you buy for your family. As you gain more and more confidence, you will be less easily fooled by distractions like – brand name, packaging jazz or proud package declarations like “gluten free”, “cholesterol-free” anymore.
Similarly, just because you are shopping in a “high-end” store like Whole foods, or Costco doesn’t mean automatically all the products in there are preservative-free. Conversely, shopping at a dollar store does not mean all products contain preservatives. It is not the shop or the cost that determines the quality of the product, but it is the ingredients and the technology with which the product is made.
Understanding food made me feel empowered. Similarly, I hope this post, serves as a reference for those wanting to make more confident food choices.
Please share your thoughts and comments down below. As always, I look forward to hearing from you.
Here are some of my favorite books I recommend for folks wanting to research further:
- Preserving Everything: Can, Culture, Pickle, Freeze, Ferment, Dehydrate, Salt, Smoke, and Store Fruits, Vegetables, Meat, Milk, and More
If you chose to buy the books using the above links, Amazon.com will provide a small commission back to this website, that way we can maintain this website and bring you more healthy ideas!! Thank you for your support!!