What’s in our food? A close up look at preservatives.

We started off the year introducing the sugar and salt dilemma many mothers face.  As we further explore this topic, we wanted to shift the focus to understanding what retail brands do to provide us with products that have a shelf life long beyond what you might expect when comparing to homemade.  What actions do they take?  How will the product withstand time?  The reason this is an important topic is because salt and sugar are popular preservatives and help prolong the life line of various food products.  Sure, taste and flavor are a primary reason we add salt and sugar but it also helps them last longer in the fridge or in your pantry. There are several ways to preserve foods when we cook them at home. The most popular methods include freezing, acidifying, chilling, fermenting and adding natural preservatives. However, with the growing concern of food safety, preservatives and wholesome nutrition — the products you see on retail shelves undergo different preservation techniques and we thought you’d be interested in learning more.

Natural Food Preservatives

Natural food preservatives refer to the added salt, sugar, alcohol, vinegar etc.  Sugar and salt are the most common and natural food preservatives that efficiently reduce microbial i.e. bacteria growth in foods.  These are traditional preservatives in food that we use at home when we cook ourselves for products including pickles, jams and juices.  Salt is still used as a natural food preservative for meat and fish.  Products such as instant coffee powder, oatmeal, evaporated milk are dehydrated, which means the moisture is removed for preservation.  Also, citrus food preservatives like citrus acid and ascorbic acid found in canned vegetables and fruit, work on the enzymes found in food and alter their metabolismleading to the preservation.

Chemical Preservatives

Here a few commonly used chemical preservatives listed below:

  • Nitrites (found in deli meats)
  • Benzoates (found in salad dressings)
  • Sulphites (found in baked goods and canned vegetables)
  • Sorbates (found in cheeses, yogurts, wine, and dried meats)
  • Antioxidants such as vitamin C, vitamin E, and BHA (found baked goods, oils, cheeses, chips, processed meats)
  • Ethanol (found in meat sauces, wine and certain extracts)

To note: Many chemical food preservatives are considered harmful and potentially carcinogenic. 

Artificial Preservatives

Here are the most popular artificial preservatives:

  • Antimicrobial agents – In addition to the chemical preservatives listed, the most common is lactic acid (found in yogurt and pickled vegetables)
  • Antioxidants – most commonly used in products containing fats. The most popular is ascorbic acid. (Found in jams, fruit juices, select processed meats and cheeses)

Processing Methods

Many food products undergo various processing methods including:

  • Batch pasteurization – This process is one of the oldest methods most specifically used for pasteurizing milk.  Milk is heated to 154.4 degrees Fahrenheit (63 degrees Celsius) in a large container and held at that temperature for 30 minutes.  When you obtain raw milk from farms, this would be the process.  It can be performed at home as well.
  • High-temperature short-time (HTST) pasteurization – This method is also known as flash pasteurization and is extremely common these days — especially for large volumes of processing.  This method is faster and more energy efficient than batch pasteurization. It is widely used for milk, carton juices, and other fruits and vegetables juices.
  • Flash Freezing – This method is also known as Blast Freezing.  Foods are frozen at extremely low temperatures with cold, circulating air so as to avoid the formation of ice crystals, which prevents moisture loss in the food when it thaws.  This is an extremely popular process for frozen fruits, ground meat such as burgers or meatballs, and various baked goods.
  • High pressure processing (HPP) – Food products are processed under a very high pressure which inactivates the bacterial and enzyme growth without the addition of additives and preservatives. In the last few years, HPP has become increasingly popular particularly related to cold-pressed juice products, a few baby food brands and even store bought guacamole. This process doesn’t provide for a long shelf-life.  Additionally, the nutrient profile of products in comparison to homemade has not been effectively determined.
  • Electroporation – This is an alternative pasteurization process for sterilizing food products, which is also popular with fruit juices.
  • Manothermosonication (MTS)- This process involves inactivating enzymes by a combined heat/ultrasounds treatment under pressure without the addition of additives and preservatives and most commonly occurs with milk and orange juice.

For most of us, the processing methods seem confusing because of the big words and the unfamiliarity of it all.  However, when evaluating, you want to choose a clean ingredient profile with a fresh flavor while preserving nutrition and making the product safe for consumption. At present, the nutrient profile in the above processing methods is compromised to some degree so at best, we’re able to tell you that freezing methods are the closest in comparison to homemade.

It is extremely interesting to see the variety of food preservation techniques present today.  In fact, because of the demand of NON-GMO, organic, wholesome retail products – the processing methods category continues to grow. Natural food preservatives are everywhere and the goal is to be aware of how much salt and sugar is being consumed.  We want to eat authentic REAL food and decrease the number of chemicals that enter our body.  We encourage you to read the food labels, further investigate ingredient lists and ASK us if you are puzzled about something.

As part of our Yummy family, we’re here to help you crack the code on those nutrition related mysteries.