September 22, 2023

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Singularly remarkable health

Is my Food Safe?: Preservatives and Cancer


Did you know that I recently did a webinar on this topic, and other questions related to whether our food supply is safe? Check it out here: Is My Food Safe? FREE WEBINAR!.


I have said this before (check out my previous posts on microplastics and food additives), but it’s important to say it again!

Between the USDA and the DHHS (Department of Health and Human Services), which includes the FDA and the CDC, there are quality controls regarding processed foods as well as processes in place to deal with any food borne illness outbreaks.

Therefore, when it comes to this series of topics, I want to start by saying that I trust the process for food sold in the US, and that it is safe. Is there room for improvement? Of course, just like anything else! But I do not think that anyone is hiding anything, and actually I believe we have the safest food supply in the world, and we should be confident in that.

As we dive into these topics, I encourage you to think to yourself the following questions:

  • How often do I eat this food?
  • What portion size do I typically eat?

For most of us, this information will be interesting, but likely will not change our consumption behavior, because we tend to eat such a varied diet (a good thing!), and the amount we consume wouldn’t make a difference in our health outcomes even if there are some concerns about it.

Now – back to the topic at hand!

The Bottom Line Up Front

The truth is that it’s not necessary to avoid all preservatives. When it comes to preservatives, like so many other topics in this series, focus on getting plenty of plants (fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, nuts, seeds). What preservatives you consume is less important if you’re making sure to provide your body with the nutrients it needs to function.

There are hundreds of different preservatives in the food system. Some of them are perfectly safe, and a few you may want to limit. Much of our food available to us is processed. Processing often makes cooking easy (a good thing, from my perspective!). However, some processing decreases nutrition value (white bread vs. whole wheat bread) and some preservatives we will want to be cautious with.

One great example of a preservative that has been used for a long time is salt. Salt is delicious and is probably in most foods that we cook. Salt is also an electrolyte and is essential to the body being able to function correctly. But you have probably know that too much salt is a bad thing. Salt can cause problems when regularly consumed at unhealthy levels.

In today’s article we will focus on 4 preservative to pay attention to in regards to limiting your intake.

What Foods Containe Preservatives?

You can find additives and preservatives in all kinds of different food items. Just because many common foods contain some preservatives (or you don’t know how to pronounce the words), doesn’t mean you need to cut them out completely! It’s important to pay attention to what benefits a food brings to your table and your body, and what potential harms any preservatives might have.

There are a few preserved foods that research suggests you may want to limit. However, most preservatives approved for the food supply are perfectly safe.

1. Sodium Nitrates & Processed Meat

One type of food that it might be worth it to watch the preservatives is processed meats. Processed meats include things like:

  • sausage
  • bacon
  • hotdogs
  • pepperoni/salami

These meats are often preserved with nitrates. Nitrates are typically used to flavor meat, stabilize the red color in meats, and stop bacterial growth. Eventually these break down into nitrites which increase risk of colorectal cancer.

I am not saying that you should never eat processed meats but limiting consumption will reduce the amount of nitrates that you consume. For more on my take regarding processed meats, check out my article here: Do Bacon, Hot Dogs and Red Meat Cause Cancer? Facts and What You Need to Know!

2. Trans Fats

Trans fats are made in the process of taking liquid fat (usually vegetable oil) and treating it with hydrogen (hydrogenating) to make it a solid. Trans fats are technically both an additive (to give flavor and smooth texture) and a preservative (shelf life is longer with trans fat as opposed to other fats).

Trans fats don’t have a direct link to cancer but they are linked to heart diseases.

It’s simple to know if a food item has trans fat as it’s listed on the nutrition facts label. Also, “partially hydrogenated” oils found in the ingredient list mean there are trans fats in the food.

3. Monosodium glutamate/MSG

You may have noticed this in Asian cuisines to add flavor to the dish. Even though I listed it as a preservative to watch, MSG is actually not any worse than other sources of sodium.

MSG is a source of umami flavor. Umami is known as “the 5th flavor”, with the other flavors being sweet, sour, bitter and salty. MSG contains sodium, so the important thing about MSG intake is making sure that the sodium content of the food it is in, isn’t too high.

In fact, because MSG offers both the salty taste and the umami taste together, one study found that using MSG helped to lower peope’s sodium intake. Find that study here.

It’s important to be aware that some people may be sensitive to MSG and will need to avoid it completely.

4. Sulfites

The United States has banned the use of them with fresh fruits and vegetables. They still are used in dried fruit and dried, fried, and frozen potatoes. They are also found naturally in foods.

The only people who need to avoid sulfites are those who are sensitive to them. For everyone else, they are perfectly safe. About 1 in 100 people are sensitive to sulfites and will need to limit them.

Wrapping it up

It may be overwhelming to think of all the preservatives in foods and wondering about the health effects they might have. But, it is important to realize that preservatives are regulated by the FDA and the USDA. There are systems in place to monitor the ingredients used in our food. If they are found to cause health risks, they would not be allowed on the market.

I suggest to do your best eating many types of plant foods that are processed in ways that do not decrease nutrient value, and when you do eat something with preservatives try not to overthink it!

Stay tuned for more in this series on “Is My Food Safe?”!

-Julie & The Interns

Is My Food Safe? FREE WEBINAR!


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