For centuries, people have tried to extend the shelf life of their food supply in order to delay hunger and illness, and avoid the extra labor and cost required to find more to eat.
While the goal remains the same today (to extend a product’s shelf life), methods of preservation have developed over the centuries. Much of this is due to advancements in production, processing, formulation, and transportation.
Today, “preservatives” (both natural and synthetic) fall under the umbrella term “food additive.” The basic purposes of food additives are 1) protect and preserve freshness 2) improve nutritional value 3) aid in processing 4) maintain/improve appearance of the food. Preservatives fall under that first category: protect and preserve freshness. A few examples of preservatives found in packaged food products include: sodium benzoate, calcium propionate, potassium sorbate, rosemary extract, and EDTA (for delaying rancidity).
Some food enthusiasts knock the food industry for the addition of preservatives in packaged food products. But the simple truth is that preservatives are a reliable solution to effectively delay product deterioration and extend the product’s shelf life. Preservatives can do this while maintaining the product’s taste, appearance, and cost.
Besides including a preservative in the formula, the food industry employs other methods to preserve the food we purchase. Processing methods like canning, and refrigeration are proven ways to extend a product’s shelf life, but each come with drawbacks as well. Canning processes can alter the flavor, texture, and appearance of a product. Refrigeration is used heavily throughout the industry, but can significantly increase the cost.
For many consumers, preservatives are an effective means to enjoy the foods they love. Some consumers prefer to invest more time or money to enjoy preservative-free options. However, that’s the beauty of our food supply. Not only do we enjoy one of the safest, most secure food systems in the world…we have a huge diversity of food products to choose from.
Source: Genevieve L. Christen, ed and J. Scott Smith, ed. Food Chemistry: Principles and Applications. Science Technology System, 2000.