Throughout history, one of the biggest concerns of every group of people around the world has been finding ways to preserve food produced. Food preservation has advanced side by side with agriculture since ancient times, and over the centuries, we have found more and more ways to keep food edible for ever-longer periods.
This exploded with the birth of industrial chemistry in the 20th Century, leading to a huge range of new food additives and preservatives being discovered. Today, people around the globe rely on these preservatives when seeking safe food to eat. However, it is still useful to understand what these preservatives are, and the various methods by which they work.
The Major Types of Food Additives and Preservatives
Fundamentally, there are two basic types of food preservation: physical and chemical. Physical methods involve processes such as freezing or drying, often making significant changes to the food itself. Chemical methods are designed to preserve the food in its original state, as best as possible.
Chemical preservatives come in several different types:
- Anti-microbial preservatives
The most direct way to preserve food is to simply prevent it from spoiling. Anti-microbial agents prevent the growth of mold, bacteria, and other microbial life which would render the food unsafe to eat. These include benzoates, sorbates, propionates, and nitrates.
All of these are either acids, or salts derived from those acids. Acidic environments resist bacterial growth but can easily affect the flavor of the foods being preserved.
Another common method for preserving food is to prevent oxidation – the process of decay accelerated by exposure to oxygen in the atmosphere. Antioxidants are the most varied of the “families” of food additives and preservatives. These include vitamins (E and C), sulfites, and butylated hydroxyanisole.
Antioxidants are particularly effective at suppressing unwanted odors that can be caused by decay but cannot prevent bacterial growth.
III. Chelating agents
These are a sub-set of antioxidants that act via different means. Rather than directly inhibiting oxidation, chelating agents bind metal ions within foods to prevent decay. The most widely used chelating agent is citric acid, which is also the most common preservative in the world. This also includes most polyphosphates, which are effective anti-browning agents for fruits and vegetables.
Sodium Benzoate is among the most commonly used artificial preservatives in food and medicine today. It is also well-studied and considered to be Generally Recognized As Safe (GRAS) by the FDA, allowing it to be used a wide variety of products.
In this article, we’ll cover what sodium benzoate is, where it comes from, its uses, and any potential health issues that might arise from overuse.
- The Basics of Sodium Benzoate
Sodium benzoate is an odorless white power, created by combining benzoic acid with sodium hydroxide (lye). Sodium benzoate is not naturally occurring and must be created in a lab, although its primary ingredient – benzoic acid – is natural. This acid can be found in many commonplace plants, such as tomatoes, cloves, cinnamon, apples, and cranberries. It is also produced as a byproduct of some fermenting processes, such as the creation of yogurt.
Benzoic acid is already a good preservative on its own. The addition of sodium hydroxide makes it more readily soluble, and therefore easier to use in a wider variety of products.
- Uses of Sodium Benzoate
Sodium benzoate was among the first artificial preservatives approved by the FDA and is therefore used widely throughout the food and beverage industry. It actively inhibits the growth of molds and bacteria, allowing for significantly extended shelf lives for treated products.
Being based in an acid, the preservative does have a noticeable sharp flavor. Therefore, it is most commonly used in products which are themselves acidic or salty, such as sodas, citric juices, pickles, salad dressing, and soy sauce.
Sodium benzoate also sees significant use in the health and beauty industries. It is commonly used as a preservative for liquid medications, such as cough syrup, and is also utilized in a wide variety of cosmetics.
III. Potential Health Issues from Sodium Benzoate
While sodium benzoate itself is harmless, in certain circumstances it can convert into benzene, which is known to be a carcinogen. This is most likely to happen when in the presence of Vitamin C (ascorbic acid). However, the process is inhibited when sugars are present, so the biggest danger is from diet sodas and fruit juices. The industry generally avoids using sodium benzoate in diet/sugar-free drinks for this reason.
Otherwise, sodium benzoate is considered entirely safe when used in proper quantities.
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