Food Preservatives 101

What Are Preservatives & Why They Are Dangerous:

For many of us we hear about how food preservatives are “bad”, “unhealthy”, and should be avoided. But what is a food preservative and why are they so dangerous?

A food preservative is a substance added to foods to make them last longer - to "preserve" them. Preservatives are added to foods that can go bad quickly. Some prevent the growth of bacteria and mold, while others prevent delicate fats from going rancid. There are so many preservatives in our common grocery store items, and although most of these additives are “approved” by government food agencies, this doesn’t mean they’re guaranteed to be safe for everyone or that the food is “healthy”.

Foods with preservatives are more-processed, less-nutritious foods. Even the foods marketed as healthy are not exactly health foods. This is why reading food labels before placing them into your shopping cart will ensure the most common preservative offenders do not get into you and your family’s bodies.

Some of the most common health issues created or exasperated by food preservatives are:

  • Breathing Difficulties: the Mayo Clinic identified aspartame, sulfites, benzoates and yellow dye No. 5, and sulphites as preservatives that could exacerbate breathing problems in asthmatics and others

  • Behavioural Issues: a 2003 double-blind study of 1,873 children by the Archives of Disease in Children found the consumption of food additives and preservatives led to significant increase in hyperactive behavior

  • Heart Damage: studies of heart tissue reviewed by InChem have showed that food preservatives can weaken heart tissues

  • Cancer: one of the most harmful effects in our bodies when we ingest perseravtives is their ability to transform into carcinogens when digested. When nitrosamines, which include nitrites and nitrates, interact with stomach and gastric acids they can form cancer-causing agents.

So, now that you understand what preservatives are and the potential harm they can cause, let’s now meet a few common food preservatives.


FUN FACT: The term “salary” is from the Latin word for salt. It’s thought that it came from the ancient Romans who would pay employees, allowing them to buy salt. Either that, or it was for their work conquering and/or guarding salt mines/roads. Either way, salt was sought because of its ability to preserve food before the advent of refrigeration.

In today’s day and age, with fridges and freezers in every home and grocery store, and refrigerated trucks, salt is not needed for food preservation as much. But our taste buds still seem to crave it on an epic scale. The average American eats over 3,400 mg of sodium per day, well over the recommended 2,300 mg/day. Much of that is because it’s found in processed foods.

According to Harvard Health:

"... reducing dietary salt (table salt that is only sodium, chloride and iodine) will lower blood pressure, reduce the risk of heart attack and stroke, and save lives."

So, salt is one of those all-too-common food preservatives that most of us will do better with less of.

Nitrites (nitrates and nitrosamines):

Nitrites are preservatives added to processed meats. They're not bad in and of themselves, but they do turn into harmful chemicals called nitrosamines. Nitrosamines are carcinogens found in cigarette smoke. Nitrites form nitrosamines when they're cooked at high heat (i.e., BBQ meats and fried meat), and sometimes even when exposed to the high acid environment of the stomach.

Nitrites are added to meats to keep the pink-red colour and prevent “browning.” Mostly in bacon, ham, sausages and lunch meats. Since nitrites can change into nitrosamines, nitrites are one-step away from being the “bad guys.” For example processed meats have been linked with colon cancer. Because of the nitrites? Perhaps, but either way, nitrosamines are a confirmed health-buster.

Since nitrosamines (from nitrites) are the bad guys and are formed by cooking nitrites at high heat, what are nitrates?

Nitrates are naturally found in many healthy foods like vegetables. They’re especially high in beets. Sometimes our enzymes or gut bacteria change these healthy nitrates into nitrites. However, they rarely form nitrosamines because they’re two-steps away from becoming these “bad guys.”


Have you seen on packages “BHA/BHT has been added to the package to help maintain freshness?” Perhaps on cereal packages or in gum? Guess how these compounds maintain freshness? Because they’re preservatives.

BHA (butylated hydroxyanisole) and BHT (butylated hydroxytoluene) are antioxidants added to many processed foods. The main way BHA and BHT work is by preventing fats from going rancid. Are they safe? Well, they're approved for use as a preservative at small doses. However, some studies show they can cause cancer in animals at high doses. Again, they're added to processed pre-packaged foods, so it's wise to avoid them nonetheless.


There are a lot of preservatives in our food supply. These compounds work by preventing the growth of bacteria and mold, or by preventing fats from going rancid, and they're mostly found in processed foods. If you want to avoid them, stick to eating fresh foods found in your grocery store’s produce and butcher sections.

Does this information make you want to read all your food ingredient labels now? Let me know in the comments below!

Recipe (preservative-free): Kale Chips

Serves 4

  • 1 bunch of kale, washed and dried

  • 1 tbsp olive oil

  • 2 dashes salt

  • 2 dashes garlic powder


  1.  Preheat oven to 300F and place a sheet of parchment paper on a baking sheet.

  2. Take the washed and dried kale and rip them into "chip" size pieces and place in a large bowl.

  3. Drizzle with olive oil, salt, and garlic powder. Mix until the kale pieces are evenly covered.

  4. Place kale onto prepared sheet in an even layer. Bake for 10 minutes.

  5. Flip over the kale to cook the other sides of the pieces. Bake for another 10 minutes until the edges just start turning brown. Monitor them well, or you'll have burnt kale chips.

  6. Serve & enjoy!

Tip: You can use any spice, so try onion powder, paprika, or even turmeric.