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Why we worry about preservatives — and why we shouldn’t

Barilla was sued over its use of citric acid. (littleny/Getty Images/iStock)

In October, pasta maker Barilla got hit with a class-action lawsuit over its jarred pasta sauces. The suit is over the “no preservatives” claim, which is right there on the label. On the ingredient list, though, is citric acid, which can be used as a preservative.

Sigh. Where do I begin?

How about with the safety of preservatives in general, which is something consumers are very concerned about. One recent consumer poll found that “no preservatives” is one of the top three claims driving purchasing. (The other two are “no artificial ingredients” and “locally produced.”) What consumers say and what they do are often two different things, but a poll does give us some idea about priorities. People want to avoid preservatives.

When I have a question about safety of an ingredient, I often turn to the Center for Science in the Public Interest, which has been carefully watching safety research for decades. They’re a go-to source for me because, when I disagree with them (which I have, recently over Splenda), I think they’re overly conservative, and I prefer a source that errs on the side of caution than the reverse. When they tell you something’s safe, you can be confident.

Lisa Lefferts, senior scientist at CSPI, ran down the most common preservatives for me. Here’s her list (I’m not going to give you the full names of the abbreviated items; if you want them, they’re easily found):

Citric acid/sodium citrate

Potassium sorbate/sorbic acid

Sodium benzoate/benzoic acid/potassium benzoate

Ascorbic acid (vitamin C)

Lactic acid

Sodium nitrite/sodium nitrate

Sodium diacetate


Sodium erythorbate/erythorbic acid

Sulfur dioxide/sulfites

Calcium propionate

Of those, only one — sodium nitrite/nitrate, which is used in bacon and other cured meats — is classified as “avoid” (in CSPI’s safe/caution/avoid taxonomy). Several other, less common preservatives are also “avoid” (BHA, Propyl Gallate, TBHQ). Most preservatives, though, are safe, and the risk of preservatives as a group is small. It’s also worth noting that salt, sugar and some spices can act as preservatives, but those aren’t the ones people object to.

Oh, and citric acid, the one Barilla is being sued for? Perfectly safe. It occurs naturally in citrus fruits, although for the past hundred years it’s been made at industrial scale by using a mold (which is then filtered out).

How did a class of ingredients that poses such a low risk become one of consumers’ top priorities? I asked Alan Levinovitz, associate professor of religion (religion!) at James Madison University, who’s writing a book about the concept of naturalness. “When people say they hate preservatives, I don’t think that’s what they mean,” he told me. “They mean that they hate foods that are produced in ways that are fundamentally opaque to them. They’re suspicious that corporations often don’t have our best interests at heart.”

And here’s the kicker: “With some justification.”

Although citric acid is perfectly safe, it’s not unreasonable to object to a food system that has become increasingly populated with increasingly processed foods. Preservatives are a proxy.

Labeling processed foods as ‘clean’ makes us feel safe. And that’s a problem.

Just as the fight over GMOs is really a fight over industrialized agriculture, the fight over preservatives is really a fight over processed food.

Is it reasonable to be leery of foods that have had their nutrients stripped out of them, and lots of colors, flavors and preservatives added in? Of course it is. Is it reasonable to be dissatisfied with the process by which ingredients are declared Generally Recognized As Safe (GRAS)? Of course it is. Is it reasonable to suspect that some additives we believe to be perfectly safe may turn out to have effects we don’t understand yet? Of course it is.

Too often, the defense of our food system underplays those objections, or overplays the advantages things like preservatives bring to consumers. To hear the Food and Drug Administration tell it, “Some additives could be eliminated if we were willing to grow our own food, harvest and grind it, spend many hours cooking and canning, or accept increased risks of food spoilage.” Seriously? It’s either the status quo or 1850?

But of course preservatives do prevent food spoilage, which can help fight waste. Shelf-stable food is a boon to the human race, and one of the reasons many fewer of us go hungry in the modern world. Food-additive watchdogs, though, can force food companies to spend the time and the money figuring out if certain additives are really necessary. CSPI co-founder Mike Jacobson pointed out to me in an email that preservatives can be used “as insurance to ensure that foods have adequate shelf life, but can do (and have done) without many. Thirty years ago BHA and BHT were widely used in vegetable oil (and oily foods like potato chips) but are rarely used now.”

When the give-and-take between industry and watchdogs plays out reasonably, consumers benefit. Unfortunately, though, proxy wars don’t always play out reasonably. Consumers want their clean labels, but they also want their mass-produced pasta sauce. Producers want to put “no preservatives” on the label to attract the business of the clean-label customers, but they also want to use preservatives. It becomes a race to stupid, culminating in a lawsuit over citric acid.

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And about that lawsuit. An FDA spokesman told me in an email that “citric acid may be used as a flavoring or preservative. If it is used as a preservative, that should be reflected on the label.” It’s not reflected on the Barilla label, so I asked the company whether the citric acid was a flavoring or preservative, but my emails went unanswered. Which is okay, because I really don’t care.

And neither should you. If you’re eating healthfully — a variety of whole foods with their nutrients intact — then preservatives are a nonissue because you’re not ingesting a lot of them. If you’re eating a diet high in processed foods, then you’re eating more preservatives, but the problem isn’t the preservatives — it’s that you’re eating a diet high in processed foods. And the issue with processed foods is less what’s in them than what’s been stripped out of them.

If you’re worried about risk, worry about texting and driving. Worry about smoking. Worry about obesity. I’ve even started worrying about great white sharks, since they moved into my neighborhood en masse and started eating people. But don’t worry about preservatives.

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