The idea of adding preservatives to food has been around since the time of Napoleon, and it makes a lot of sense – fresh food can spoil quickly, and if we can’t get it from farm to table in time, then all that work is wasted. There’s been a lot of debate on this topic in the past, and it’s an important question to answer: are preservatives actually bad for you?

 

Preservatives are in almost all foods you find at the grocery store: canned goods, sliced bread, deli meat, cake mixes, dairy goods - even frozen vegetables often have them added for extra protection from rot. It might surprise you to learn that “preservatives” are simply anything that preserves food – many are natural, and some are even beneficial – like the scary-sounding alpha-tocopherol, which is actually just Vitamin E, a natural antioxidant.

 

It's almost impossible to avoid preservatives at the grocery store.

 

Here in the USA, the FDA constantly monitors food additives and all research related to their safety. But while food preservatives are safe to eat in small amounts, that doesn’t mean we should eat them all the time. After all, butter is safe to eat, but you definitely shouldn’t eat it all day every day. The foods that contain the most preservatives are usually highly-processed – instant meals, canned foods, lunch meats, candy and snacks. These things last forever and are also high in sugar, fat and salt, none of which are good for us. It’s also important to note that not all preservatives are created equally – some (like Vitamin E) are good for us, but others can be dangerous if we consume too much of them.

 

Most highly-processed food contains preservatives - as well as fat, sugar, and salt.

 

There’s no doubt that the foods at the grocery store are in the produce section. But these foods are hard to keep – they only last so long so they need to be eaten quickly, and we need to figure out how to keep them fresh and cool outside the home (luckily, technology has our back). But most of us can’t survive on fruits and vegetables alone, and we can’t ignore the fact that a lot of healthy foods contain preservatives: things like whole-grain bread, skim milk, and lean deli meats.

 

Fresh, non-processed food is always the healthiest choice.

 

So in the end, it’s not the preservatives themselves that are bad for you, it’s the highly-processed foods (which tend to have a lot of preservatives in them) that we should avoid. It’s all about balance. It’s better to stick to fresh, whole ingredients rather than relying on processed foods, but eating a wide variety of healthy foods, preservatives and all, is the most important thing.