Preservatives are not good for you per se - in that they do not add to your nutrition and increase the risk of certain health problems. However, without them, other health problems - high among them, bacterial infection, would be a near guarantee. All in all, a necessary evil.
Unfortunately, preservatives are for many people a necessary evil. You may have noticed on various ingredient labels such names as sodium benzoate, sulfites, butylated hydroxytoluene, etc. Perhaps you've even seen castor oil, vinegar, and rosemary and wondered what they were doing in your food - certainly not lending flavor from what you could tell. The above and more are all preservatives - the first group being synthetic, the second group being natural. Let's start first with the bad news.
Preservatives cause cancer. More accurately, many preservatives have been linked to cancer. Nitrites, which are safe by themselves, interact with amino acids to form nitrosamines, which are carcinogenic. However, defenders of the food industry make a point that the level of nitrosamines is too low to be of concern. Then again - what about accumulated over time? After all, one cigarette will not cause cancer - it's an accumulated effect happening often over several decades of heavy smoking. Sulfites have been linked to breathing problems and allergic reactions in people sensitive to sulfites (though this affects a very low percentage of the population). Also implicated in causing breathing difficulties are the benzoates, of which sodium benzoate has come under much scrutiny due to its connection with hyperactivity in children. This has been observed by several studies, however, to have to do with sodium benzoate interacting with certain artificial colors (such as Yellow 5) and many are quick to note that the hyperactivity is more of a result of the artificial colors than sodium benzoate.
With these obviously bad qualities, why in the world do we use preservatives? Well, unless you are eating freshly butchered meat, you need preservatives. They are what keeps food fresh or in another way of thinking - keeps food from becoming toxic. In short, if there were no preservatives, you'd have to eat everything immediately or risk catching various diseases, none of which are pleasant, and many of which could be fatal. For example, those potentially cancer-causing nitrites protect against Clostridium botulinum, the bacteria responsible for botulism. So, really - it's often a question of a slightly increased risk of cancer or taking chances with being nearly guaranteed to be infected by some sort of bacteria.
Keep in mind that the most dangerous item used as a preservative is far and away sugar. Sugar has been linked to increased risks of obesity, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, stroke...and yes, even cancer. If you can get your food fresh and eat it before it spoils or microbes have a chance to do their dirty work, by all means, go for it. However, if you shop at a grocery store and expect your food to last longer than overnight (in some cases that would be a long time without preservatives), then, unfortunately, preservatives are needed.
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Written by Jeff Volling | 02-22-2016
Written by Jeff Volling
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