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.