food additives

Natural & Chemical Food Additives

Food additives & preservatives: what chemicals have you eaten today?

Food additives have been used for centuries, for example as the addition of salt or alcohol to food products. Food preservation is important because it keeps food from spoiling, and it can be important for our health as it reduces the risk of food poisoning from bacterial and fungal growth.

Most processed food contains additives in one form or another. It is important for manufacturers to be able to protect their food products from going off during transportation or storage time, and it increases profitability if they can increase the shelf life of their products.

Natural additives

Natural food additives include salt, sugar, honey, vinegar and alcohol. Food can also be preserved using natural methods such as freezing, smoking, dehydrating or boiling. All of these methods can be used to safely protect food from microbiological contamination and preserve their life span.

Citric and ascorbic acid (Vitamin C) also come under the natural food additives/preservatives category. These substances are produced naturally in fruits and vegetables and are found in high concentrations in citrus fruits such as lemons and limes. Citric and ascorbic acid have antioxidant properties as well as the ability to lower the pH of food. They are often used as preservatives and are not only safe, but have some nutritional value too.

Chemical food additives

chemical preseratives (1)

Chemical preservation is a highly effective and cost efficient way of prolonging the shelf-life of processed food. Use of chemical preservation began in the late nineteenth century and became widespread in the twentieth century.

There are a large number of food additives that are approved for use in food being sold in the UK. Although these chemicals occur in nature, as food preservatives they are chemically mass produced and are not natural. Let us look at a few examples that you see commonly on UK supermarket shelves and that have been approved for human consumption.


Sodium nitrite (E250) and potassium nitrite (E249) are commonly added to processed meats such as ham, salami, hot dogs and other cured meats to prevent discolouration and bacterial growth. It is difficult to find any cured meat in the supermarkets that has not been treated with a nitrate.

deli meat
Nitrite preservatives are found in most processed deli meats

Although scientific studies have so far given conflicting results, nitrate ingestion has been linked to several different types of cancer including colon, kidney, stomach, thyroid, ovarian and pancreatic1. This risk is associated with excessive intake of nitrates and is particularly high for children as they consume a higher proportion of nitrates in relation to their body weight.

Although the link to nitrates and cancer is not conclusively proven, it remains a fact that in 2010, the World Health Organisation (WHO) listed nitrates as a probable carcinogen.

Nitrates are also frequently registered as a migraine trigger amongst headache sufferers, although again this has not been conclusively proven.


There are a variety of sulphite preservatives found in our food in the UK. These include sulphur dioxide (E220), sodium sulphite (E221) and sodium metabisulphite (E223). Sulphites are commonly found in sausages, dried fruits, ready meals and soft drinks.

Sulphites are a known allergen and can cause symptoms such as wheezing, fainting and asthma in sufferers; they can also cause digestive irritation and upset in certain people. Like nitrates, sulphites have also been identified as headache and migraine triggers.


Potassium sorbate (E202) is used extensively in the UK in almost all cordials and squash drinks as well as in baked goods, yoghurts, dried meats and cheeses.

Potassium sorbate is considered to be a mild preservative, and although it has been shown to damage DNA in in vitro scientific studies (studies conducted on cells outside of the body)2, as well as triggering occasional allergic reactions, it is deemed safe for use by the Food Standards Agency.

Anecdotal evidence from parents has highlighted potassium sorbate as a trigger for behavioural problems including aggression, night terrors, unease and emotional disturbances. In children with behavioural problems, the only way to determine if they are affected by this preservative is to cut it out of their diets for several weeks. Since E202 is in a wide variety of food products, a non-processed diet is really the only effective way to achieve this.


food additives

Sodium benzoate is a commonly used preservative used in fizzy soft drinks, as well as jams, fruit juices and salad dressings. This preservative has been strongly linked to hyperactivity and ADHD in children3. Sodium benzoate is often paired with other additives which may contribute to hyperactivity and so again, the only way to determine its effect is to cut it out of the diet altogether for several weeks.


Just because a chemical substance is approved for use in food does not mean that it is not having an adverse effect on our health. Children in particular are susceptible to these harmful effects because they are proportionally smaller than adults and so take in more of the chemicals on a weight by weight basis. Cutting these food additives out of your diet is the only real way to see what effect they are having on you. It could be argued that whether they are personal triggers or not, it cannot be beneficial to be consuming this level of chemicals in our daily diets.

Cutting all chemical food additives out of your diet can seem a daunting prospect. Join The Green Apple Club community and find all of the help and support that you need to lead a healthy, clean-eating lifestyle.




About the author: 

Sonia Nicholas is a Biomedical Scientist and Freelance Clinical Science Writer & Editor. She has been working in the field of clinical science for fifteen years.

Sonia believes that everyone can improve their health by eating a clean diet – a claim that scientific research increasingly supports. Sonia also believes that healthy, clean eating is accessible to all and doesn’t have to be an expensive lifestyle choice.

All of the information on The Green Apple Club website is in line with current, recommended Government guidelines. All of the articles are evidence based and fully scientifically referenced.


Article tags: food additives, food preservatives, natural preservatives

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