How are foods preserved without preservatives

Preservatives: what they are in and how they affect the body

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While preservatives offer protection against food infections, some representatives have the potential to endanger our health. Therefore, we question the purpose of preservatives and explain to you what to look for when buying.

What are preservatives?

Preservatives belong to the additives category. They are used in the food industry to preserve products thanks to their antimicrobial effect. This can extend their shelf life and prevent premature spoilage.

In addition to chemical preservatives, food can also be preserved using physical processes. In this context, drying, pasteurizing - for example for milk -, sterilizing, deep-freezing (e.g. herbs) and vacuuming should be mentioned. If dehydration (e.g. with dried spices), air extraction - e.g. with coffee - and the like are not sufficient, synthetic preservatives are used.

When it comes to adding to food, most of them are scarce 50 approved preservatives (of a total of 300 permitted additives) from a food law perspective, special requirements and maximum doses.

In contrast to artificial preservatives such as sulfur dioxide, benzoic acid or sorbic acid, natural preservatives such as vinegar, salt or sugar are not food additives.

In pickled pickles, the salt serves as a natural preservative. Photo: Teresa-Maria Sura

What are preservatives used for? Where are they used?

The addition of preservatives prevents microbial food infections. In addition, the food industry uses chemical preservatives in order to be able to store and transport finished products for longer.

The mechanism of action of preservatives is based on inhibiting the growth of microorganisms. In addition to bacteria, yeasts and molds should also be mentioned in this regard. By adding preservatives, diseases like Botulism (bacterial "meat poisoning") and listeriosis (bacterial infection) be prevented.

If food is not adequately preserved, there is a risk of food infection - including from salmonella - to get sick. Molds, in turn, can be carcinogenic Aflatoxins (mold toxin) excrete, so preserving susceptible foods is doubly effective.

Preserving not only prevents food infections, but also extends storage and transport times.

While the protection against illness through spoiled food is understandable, I see the sometimes very liberal use of preservatives in the industrialized mass production of food as extremely worrying.

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Also in terms of a sustainable diet, I would recommend you to favor natural foods and to avoid finished products as much as possible.

The longer the list of ingredients, the more likely it is that additives and preservatives will be added. In addition, heavily processed foods are still packaged in plastic with preference so that they encourage us to buy in brilliant colors and with targeted marketing slogans.

Packaged foods that contain preservatives are subject to labeling. On the list of ingredients, either the name of the substance (e.g. "Bonzoic acid") or the E number (in this case: "E 210") must appear after "preservatives".

The most commonly used preservatives include:

While Sulfur dioxide (E220) for example for preserving canned fruit, dried potato products, wine, snack items or dried fruits such as apricots Benzoic acid (E210) in sauces, in delicacies such as olives or leavened vegetables, in jams and fish products - sometimes in combination with Sorbic acid (E200) be added.

For preserving meat and sausage products made from it, is often used Sodium nitrite (E250) used. The same applies to the preservatives Sodium nitrate (E251) and Potassium nitrate (252), which are also used to preserve hard and semi-hard cheese.

Natamycin (E235) is in turn used for the surface treatment of cheese and sausage.

Are Preservatives Harmful?

There is controversial debate as to whether preservatives pose health risks. While proponents emphasize the protection against food infections thanks to preservation, opponents criticize that some additives not only cause allergies, but could possibly even be carcinogenic.

Even if the preservatives used in Germany are legally approved additives and are considered harmless to health, side effects cannot be ruled out.

Allergy sufferers in particular are at risk of reacting to the additives with nausea or a rash after consuming artificially preserved foods. In asthma sufferers, the consumption of dried fruit or other foods with preservatives can narrow the bronchi and cause shortness of breath.

While the commonly used preservative E220 (sulfur dioxide) in prepared meals and dried fruits can cause diarrhea, nausea, asthma attacks and headaches, the can Nitrites E249 and Sodium Nitrite E250 trigger antihypertensive and vasodilatory effects in meat production. Both preservatives can be dangerous, especially for young children.

The consumer advice center classifies the preservatives as hazardous to health E239 (hexamethylenetetramine), E284 (boric acid) and E285 (sodium compound of boric acid) a. The latter two are now only approved as additives for caviar, as they can accumulate in the body and cause poisoning.

The preservative made from ammonia and formaldehyde E239 may only be used for the production of a special Italian semi-hard cheese (provolone). The fact that this preservative is also used as a medicine to disinfect the skin and urinary tract should make consumers think.

Since a health risk - especially with frequent consumption of the foods mentioned - cannot be ruled out, I would recommend that you not to buy food with the following E-numbers:

  • Sulfur dioxide E220
  • Nitrite E249
  • Sodium nitrite E250
  • Hexamethylenetetramine E239
  • Boric acid E284
  • Sodium compound of boric acid E285

Also Benzoic acid (E210 / 211/212) and so-called PHB ester (E214 / 215/218/219) are suspected of causing allergies and pseudo-allergies. In the case of conserving Nitrites (E249 / 250) and Nitrates (E251 / 252) however, the formation of carcinogenic nitrosamines cannot be ruled out.

I would also advise against consuming industrially processed products, which are often enriched with numerous additives, some of which are harmful to health.

In addition, it should not be forgotten that imports - for example in products from Chinese supermarkets - can contain numerous questionable additives, the health risk of which cannot be assessed.

Why finished products in organic quality are the better choice and are occasionally suitable to supplement regional and natural foods such as fruit, vegetables, whole grains and the like, I will explain to you later.

Weaknesses in food labeling

The declaration of preservatives and other additives is rightly criticized again and again. When it comes to finished products that consist of several components, you as a consumer cannot be sure whether they have been artificially preserved.

For example, if a preservative is added to the fruit portion of a fruit yogurt but not to the yogurt portion, the additive does not have to be specified on the list of ingredients.

Do you love fruit yogurt? Then puree seasonal fruit or frozen berries in winter and mix the fruit puree with an organic natural yogurt. Then you can be sure that not only are there no preservatives, but also no flavors and binders in the yogurt. Try this delicious sugar-free fruit yogurt.

You can also easily mix delicious fruit yoghurt with mango yourself - without any preservatives. Photo: SevenCooks

But it is not only in fruit yoghurt that numerous additives can "hide". The same applies to preserved biscuit pieces in ice cream or for artificially preserved toppings of pizzas, the preservatives of which do not have to be declared. This lack of mandatory labeling can lead to health problems, especially for allergy sufferers.

In addition, there is another weak point in the declaration of preserved, unpackaged food. In bakeries, at the cheese counter or at the fruit and vegetable stand, where loose foods such as baked goods, cold cuts and the like are sold, there must be a notice stating which foods contain preservatives, but which preservatives are explicitly used for unpackaged goods. usually remains open. The same applies to restaurants, canteens, bars or fast food.

Preservatives in organic food

While more than 300 additives are allowed in the conventional food industry, food in organic quality may be significantly less preservatives and Co. added.

Thanks to high-quality raw materials that are as natural as possible in a mix with traditional craftsmanship, there are significantly fewer E numbers in ecological products. Many organic companies rely on an authentic taste, a natural recipe and seasonal goods, which often make chemical preservation unnecessary.

Thanks to high-quality raw materials and craftsmanship, the organic sector needs significantly fewer aids. According to EU directives in organic farming only 53 additives allowed.

The preservative E200 (sorbic acid), which is often used in conventional foods, may not be added to organic foods, for example.

In the case of highly certified organic farming associations such as Bioland, Demeter and Naturland, the number of additives is again to around 20 additives - less than a tenth compared to the conventional food industry - limited.

Because the motto should be when using preservatives "As natural as possible and as few additives as necessary", I would recommend you to also take a close look at the list of ingredients for organic foods and to give preference to fresh, unprocessed goods.

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Cover picture: SevenCooks