What you Need to Know about Preservatives

man reading food label on a package at the grocery store

I've heard that preservatives are bad for you. Should I avoid them?

Preservatives are chemical substances that are added to food to help:

  • prevent spoiling
  • improve appearance and/or
  • maintain the food’s nutritional quality

Some preservatives come from natural sources like salt, sugar, vinegar and citrus juice. Other preservatives are human-made or synthetic.  

Although Health Canada approves all of the preservatives that are used in Canada, many Canadians want to find ways to eat fewer preservatives and have begun buying more organic and unprocessed foods.

What foods have preservatives added to them?

Processed, packaged foods like some crackers, cereals, breads, snacks, ready-to-eat meals, cheese, yogurt, deli meats, sauces and soups may contain preservatives.

What are some examples of preservatives used in food?

There are many different types of preservatives. Here are some examples:

  • Benzoic acid
  • Calcium Sorbate
  • Erythorbic Acid
  • Potassium Nitrate
  • Sodium Benzoate

Antioxidants can also be used as preservatives by slowing down how quickly a product might spoil. Here are some examples:

  • Ascorbyl Palmitate
  • Butylated Hydroxyanisole (BHA)
  • Butylated Hydroxytoluene (BHT)

A complete list of preservatives can be found in Health Canada’s Food Additive Dictionary. This resource gives you an alphabetical listing of all food additives that are thought to be safe for use in Canada.

Are preservatives bad for you?

No, not in small quantities. Health Canada makes sure that all food additives, including preservatives, do not put the health of Canadians at risk. The safety of food additives is monitored regularly to make sure the amount and type of additive follows the guidelines in the Canadian Food and Drug Act. This document makes sure that the products we consume in Canada are safe.

Do preservatives make children hyperactive?

Some research says that certain preservatives like benzoic acid may increase hyperactivity in children with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). If your child has ADHD, keep a food diary. You can track what your child eats as well as his or her behaviour to see if preservatives may be causing symptoms. Preservatives like benzoic acid should be avoided if they cause hyperactivity in a child with ADHD. However, not all children with ADHD react to preservatives.

If you suspect your child may have a food sensitivity, it is important to speak with your doctor.

Should I avoid foods with preservatives?

Choosing to avoid or limit foods with preservatives is a personal choice.  If you are looking to limit the amount of preservatives in the foods you eat, follow these tips:

  • Shop for foods like fresh vegetables and fruit, dried legumes, plain meats like lean chicken, beef, turkey and pork as well as milk, eggs and plain fresh or frozen fish.
  • Try some organic foods like organic cereal. Organic foods may still contain additives but often have less. 
  • Read the label. Most pre-packaged foods have a list of ingredients, which includes preservatives. Food additives are normally listed near the end of the ingredient list, as they are usually found in smaller quantities.
  • Look for pre-packaged foods with few and simple ingredients like plain oatmeal, rice and pasta, plain grains like quinoa and buckwheat, pre-washed bagged salads and cut up vegetable and fruit trays.
  • Bake your own bread, cakes and muffins when you can.
  • Cook at home as often as you can with fresh ingredients! Try the delicious recipes.
  • Learn more about additives. Visit Health Canada’s Food Additive Dictionary for a complete list of additives that are added to foods in Canada.
  • Follow Canada’s Food Guide. Whether you choose to include or limit foods with added preservatives, it is most important to make sure you are getting a variety of foods following Canada’s Food Guide.

You might also be interested in:

What you need to know about additives

Organic Foods and Growing Methods FAQ

Hormones and antibiotics in food production

Last Update – October 13, 2020

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