Many people are shying away from foods with less-than-natural ingredients. But what they don’t know is that, without added preservatives and food preservation processes, many of the foods we love today would never make it to the dinner table. Here are 11 pantry staples that wouldn’t exist without the necessary additives.
Now we’ve got your attention. Some wines play host to a well-known preservative: sulfite. Sulfite may occur naturally in certain wines during fermentation, and is also sometimes added during the fermentation process to prevent acidification (and preserve flavor), enhance color, and remove fermentation by-products such as acetaldehyde (which many scientists think you can thank for your morning-after headache and nausea—although, unfortunately, adding sulfites won’t make you hangover-immune). Sulfites are common not only in wine, but in some ciders, dried fruits, and dried potatoes. If you have a sulfite allergy, always read the ingredients carefully since not all similar products contain the same ingredients.
Long before our contemporary methods of food preservation were formed, a number of natural methods were employed to keep foods edible for longer than their inborn shelf lives would allow. An early subject of the process was fish, as one of our healthiest main courses is well known for its proclivity to “go bad” quickly in a big way.
Fish have long been kept fresh through short-term processes like smoking—which utilizes the smoke of burning wood or charcoal as an antimicrobial agent to render the meal an inhospitable environment for bacteria growth, which is often the cause of food spoilage.
3. PEANUT BUTTER
Even organic peanut butter brands contain a touch of natural preservatives, like sugar or salt, to keep their product fresh during its tenure in your kitchen cabinet.
4. CURED MEAT
Curing is another age-old and well-known practice of food preservation, which likewise often involves salt and sugar. However, curing red meats also includes adding sodium nitrate and potassium nitrite to the meat in order to preserve its color, prevent fats from becoming rancid, and killing harmful bacteria. You have these ingredients to thank for keeping you safe from illnesses—such as botulism poisoning—that are caused by food spoilage.
The pickle is practically the poster child for food preservation, as the popular side dish would not exist if not for the fermentation of cucumber (or whatever you’re pickling) in brine or vinegar.
6. SLICED FRUIT
Many health conscious folks make it a priority to allocate a fair supply of antioxidants to their regular diets. Antioxidant molecules are found naturally in certain berries, beans, artichokes, and many types of tea, and have been thought to help reduce the risks of cancer, heart disease, and several neurodegenerative diseases. Moreover, they can also help to boost the life spans of foods in which they do not innately occur.
An apple, pear, peach, or apricot will brown rather quickly once oxygen breaches the skin due to a reaction that occurs between oxygen and enzymes present in the flesh of the fruit. As such, antioxidants are often added to pre-sliced fruits you buy in the store to remove oxygen and prevent browning. These and other fruits may be treated with ascorbic acid, otherwise known as Vitamin C, which has natural antioxidant characteristics. Ascorbic acid, which translates from Latin as “no scurvy,” is the same chemical present in common vitamin C tablets and capsules.
In a similar fashion, cheese originally became a dietary staple thanks to the preservative powers of the natural compound sorbic acid. Despite their similar-sounding names, sorbic acid has no relation to the aforementioned ascorbic acid. The word “sorbic” derives from the Latin “sorbus,” which refers to a specific genus of trees. While ascorbic acid staves off browning in cut fruits, sorbic acid keeps cheeses and other foods from developing mold and fungi. Today, not all types of cheese are made with sorbic acid, which is good news for those who are allergic (again, if you have an allergy or sensitivity, it’s important to read the labels on all foods).
8. JAM AND JELLY
Benzoic acid, often in the form of sodium benzoate in food, is used to keep mold, yeast, and bacteria at bay in some jams, jellies, and condiments. Benzoic acid in food is perfectly safe to eat (unless you’re a cat, which has a lower tolerance for benzoic acid than humans), and benzoic acid and benzoates actually occur naturally in many types of berries (especially cranberries), mushrooms, cinnamon, and cloves.
A familiar treat for many a college student, ramen and other variations of fried noodles are often kept fresh by the good graces of alpha-tocopherol, the active form of natural vitamin E. While studies of the effects of alpha-tocopherol are ongoing, the compound is thought to perhaps aid in the prevention of heart disease and certain cancers. Many types of ramen also use a synthetic antioxidant, tertiary butylhydroquinone (TBHQ), to preserve freshness. TBHQ is a common food additive used to protect the longevity of food products while sustaining their desired taste, color and smell.
10. STORE-BOUGHT BAKED GOODS
While natural preservatives like those previously mentioned are often used to keep food fresh, a good many synthetic options are employed as well. The aforementioned TBHQ, as well as other synthetic antioxidants, may be used in packaged cookies, cakes, and crackers. Its use helps prevent the breakdown of fats and oils in these products, thus preventing “off” tastes and odors.
11. RICE CEREAL
Butylated hydroxytoluene, or BHT, is another synthetic preservative designed to protect the flavor of packaged foods. BHT functions similarly to TBHQ as an antioxidant in some rice-based cereal products, thus preserving product freshness for the duration of its shelf life in your pantry. Without its use or the use of similar compounds, cereal products might spoil before you even get them home.
To learn more about the preservatives used in food (and some of their common myths), check out the below video.
A lot of misconceptions float around in the kitchen, and you need to separate fact from fiction: While some myths are just silly, others can be detrimental to your health. Here are some persistent fallacies you might still believe.
Myth #1: White Meat Is Healthier Than Dark Meat
While it’s true that dark meat has more calories than white meat, the difference is only about 30 calories per serving, so it shouldn’t affect your food choices on Thanksgiving day. Turkey and chicken legs are darker thanks to a compound called myoglobin that helps muscles store the oxygen necessary for prolonged activity. Flightless birds use their legs to get around, so the muscles they use for running contain more myoglobin, making the leg meat darker than the breast meat. Although slightly higher in calories, dark meat has more iron, zinc, and other vitamins than white meat.
Myth #2: Washing Raw Meat Before Cooking Gets Rid of Bacteria
While it’s commonly believed that rinsing your meat will remove some bacteria, it’s actually recommended that you don’t wash your meat before you cook it. As long as you cook your meat thoroughly, all the bacteria will die. The act of washing, meanwhile, could contaminate your kitchen. Bacteria could end up in your sink and any other areas that are splashed with water, so it’s safest to just skip that step.
Myth #3: Eating Late at Night Leads to Weight Gain
The myth that you should eat less as the day goes on has persisted for a long time; “don’t eat after eight,” is common advice given to people trying to lose weight. Today, contemporary nutritionists say that calories cannot tell time and it does not matter when you consume them. The misconception probably arose because midnight snacking leads to calories you wouldn’t have otherwise consumed.
Myth #4: Avoiding Gluten Has Health Benefits
Unless you have celiac disease or a diagnosed gluten intolerance or sensitivity, there is no real reason to seek out gluten-free food at the grocery store. People with celiac disease can’t eat foods like wheat or barley because the gluten in them will damage their small intestine. This illness affects about one percent of the population, so gluten is perfectly safe (and healthy!) for the remaining 99 percent. In fact, studies have shown that avoiding gluten has no health benefits for those without a diagnosed health condition such as celiac disease. A gluten-free diet may even be too low in fiber and other nutrients such as B vitamins if you aren’t careful.
Myth #5: All Preservatives Are Bad for Your Health
Preservatives are added to food to extend its shelf life and prevent bacterial growth. They are an essential part of the food we buy from the supermarket, as otherwise it may not even make it from the farm to the store without spoiling.
While there are select individuals who are sensitive to some preservatives such as sulfite and benzoic acid, people have been consuming these compounds for centuries, from both natural and synthetic sources, with significant benefit to food quality, availability, and safety. As is the case with all compounds we use to improve our quality of life, synthetic and natural preservatives should not be used in excess, as excessive use can lead to some possible health effects (for example, too much natural vitamin E may inhibit blood clotting, leading to bleeding). Fortunately, guidelines are available from regulatory agencies around the world to guide food manufacturers to ensure the concentration of preservatives, whether natural or synthetic, used in food is safe.
Myth #6: Brown Eggs Are Healthier
Brown may seem more organic or wholesome, but that’s just natural marketing. The color of the egg depends on the kind of chicken that lays it. Single Comb White Leghorn hens lay white eggs and Rhode Island Red, New Hampshire, and Plymouth Rock hens lay brown eggs. While the egg-laying chicken’s diet can affect the nutritional value of the eggs, assuming the chickens’ diets are the same, white and brown eggs are equally healthy.
Myth #7: “Multigrain” and “Whole Grain” Are Interchangeable Terms
“Multigrain” and “whole grain” mean different things, so it’s important to be able to distinguish between them. Foods labeled multigrain are made with more than one kind of grain, while whole grain products are made with the entire grain (the names are pretty accurate descriptors). Multigrain foods tend to deliver a richer texture and flavor, while whole grain foods tend to deliver more fiber and natural sources of nutrients; so choosing between the two is more a matter of personal preference.
Myth #8: Microwaving Your Food Reduces Its Nutritional Value
Opponents of the microwave have long propagated the idea that zapping your food makes it less healthy. But in reality, this couldn’t be much farther from the truth. Microwaving—especially if you add some water to the dish, loosely cover, and use the microwave to steam your veggies—is actually one of the most sound food preparation methods. The best cooking methods for retaining nutrients in your food are ones in which the food is exposed to heat for a short amount of time, minimal amounts of water are used when steaming, and the food cooks quickly—all things achieved with a microwave. Therefore, by using a microwave to steam your food, you'll retain more vitamins and minerals than with almost any other cooking method.
Want to learn more about common misconceptions we have about food? Check out our video below.