The What and Why of Preservatives

Let’s talk about shelf life. Determining the shelf life of a packaged product is important for any food business. The shelf life of your product determines how long your product will stay fresh and safe for consumption throughout the supply chain, from your manufacturing facility to the consumer. Having a longer shelf life can also decrease the amount of food waste your business produces and increase the sustainability of your product. The longer your product stays fresh on shelves, the more likely your product will be purchased and consumed. This is where preservatives come into play. 

Preservatives are essential to the freshness, preservation, and safety of your food products as you launch them onto store shelves. This resource guide will take you through the many different preservation techniques that allow us to enjoy the food we do. 

How do preservatives work?

Preservatives keep food from spoiling quickly by slowing the chemical breakdown of the product when exposed to air, bacteria, fungi or yeast. This allows food businesses to distribute their food nationwide while ensuring the quality and safety of their products. It also means your food business can guarantee the same level of quality to their customers to keep them coming back for more. We are going to focus on the two significant factors that cause food to spoil quickly: microbes and oxidation. 

Microbes include bacteria, fungi, and yeast that grow in products if not preserved properly. These microbes grow by feeding off the foods’ nutrients and can cause serious harm when consumed. Preservatives interrupt the normal functioning of the microbe’s cells, preventing bacteria like listeria and botulism from growing in your product. 

Oxidation describes various chemical reactions that impact food safety, flavor, and quality. When the phenols and enzymes in food are exposed to oxygen, fats can turn rancid and fruits and vegetables will start to brown. This reaction is commonly seen in apples; when an apple is cut and exposed to oxygen, the apple will start to brown. While chemical breakdown processes are naturally occurring, they can be prevented to maintain your product’s quality and safety.  

Preservation Techniques

Preservatives are the ingredients and processes applied to food to improve the safety, quality, and shelf-life of products. Two key techniques to preserving food are chemical and physical preservation. 

Chemical preservation involves the process of adding specific ingredients to your product that keeps the food fresh. These additives prevent the growth and spread of microbes and bacteria. Examples of food products that undergo chemical preservation include yogurt, kimchi, and sauerkraut. 

Physical preservation usually involves techniques such as salt curing, smoking, drying, and refrigeration to protect food quality. An example of products that undergo physical preservation is dried and smoked meat. 

Often, these preservation techniques are used in tandem. Using both chemical and physical preservation techniques ensures the safest, freshest, and most shelf-stable food products.  

Are preservatives safe to consume?

The FDA has an approved list of chemical and physical preservation techniques that are safe for most individuals to consume. That being said, it’s important to understand that moderation is important when consuming any food product. For example, if someone exclusively consumes high-fat, high-sugar products that contain preservatives, they may face long-term health consequences. There is ongoing research to determine if the health impacts are related to the use of preservatives within recommended quantities or if they are related to an overall unhealthy diet. 

Preservation regulations and guidelines are based on scientific findings. The FDA and food regulatory agencies take food safety very seriously and ensure that all food products are safe for consumption. 

Common Chemical Preservatives

Below is a list of common antimicrobial preservatives used to reduce the spoilage of foods by preventing the growth of bacteria, yeasts, and molds. Included are the common foods that are paired with each chemical preservative:

  • sorbic acid, sodium sorbate, sorbates: cheese, wine, baked goods, and more
  • benzoic acid, sodium benzoate, benzoates: jams, salad dressing, juices, pickles, carbonated drinks, soy sauce, and more
  • sulfur dioxide, sulfites: fruits, wines, and more
  • nitrites, nitrates: meats
  • lactic acid: yogurt, kefir, cottage cheeses, and more
  • propionic acid, sodium propionate: baked goods, and more

Find below a list of common antioxidants used to prevent oxidation. You will find the ingredient and the products it typically preserves.

  • ascorbic acid, sodium ascorbate: cheese, chips, and more
  • butylated hydroxytoluene, butylated hydroxyanisole: oils, packaging, and more
  • gallic acid, sodium gallate: wines and more
  • sulfur dioxide, sulfites: beverages, wines, and more
  • tocopherols (Vitamin E): oils, cereals, and more

In Summary:

This resource guide covered how preservatives can increase a product’s shelf-life and how they can be used to guarantee your product’s safety, freshness, and quality. Using the chemical and physical preservation techniques listed in this article, you will be able to produce shelf-stable products with consistent quality and taste. Now it’s time to start preserving your products and extending your shelf life!