We have received permission to provide telehealth / teletherapy to our existing clients.

Reminders about preservatives in food when feeding your child

Share This Post


Are food preservatives harmful? This is a question that is often asked. The answer to this question is complex as food preservatives are diverse. There is a belief that food preservatives can cause harm to health by eliciting an allergic response in hypersensitive individuals or increase the risk of developing certain diseases such as cancer. These attributes cannot be linked to all food preservatives and some food preservatives can actually render food safer and more nutritious.[1,2] It is therefore important to be informed to know which food preservatives are harmful and which are not.

Food preservatives are substances that are added to food items to reduce spoilage or to maintain the desired quality of a product. [3] Food preservatives are classified according to their main function and can either be synthetic or natural. Some examples of natural food preservatives include salt, sugar, vinegar, lemon juice, alcohol, herbs and spices.[4] Natural food preservatives are often used at the household level, whereas synthetic food preservatives are used in the food industry to ensure that the finalized product is safe and acceptable for the consumption of consumers. Synthetic food preservatives can be found in a variety of food items such as fruit sauces, fruit jellies, baked goods, cured meats, beverages, oils, margarine, dressings, snack foods, cereals, fruit and vegetables. [3]

Various synthetic food preservatives are available for use in the food industry. Some examples are given below according to the main function.[5]


Prevent food spoilage from moulds, fungi, bacteria, or yeast  

Benzoic acid, Calcium propionate, Sodium Nitrate and Nitrite, Sulfites (Sulfur Dioxide, Sodium Bisulfite, Potassium Hydrogen Sulfite) and disodium

Maintain freshness

Prevent or slow changes in colour, texture, or flavour

Delay rancidity

BHT (butylated hydroxytoluene), BHA (butylated hydroxyanisole), PG, citric acid, Tertiary butylhydroquinone (TBHQ) and ascorbyl palmitate

Synthetic food preservatives are substances that are not normally consumed as foods, therefore they fall under the broader term “Food Additives” and are regulated by the Department of Health’s food control division. Collectively food preservatives and additives are regulated with the guidance of the FOODSTUFFS, COSMETICS AND DISINFECTANTS ACT – NO 54 OF 1972. Regulations provide maximum quantities of food preservatives allowed within a product, however, sometimes manufacturers exceed the allowed levels of food preservatives in products.2 Regulations do highlight that food additives may not disguise an inferior product, deceive a consumer, destroy nutrients or have no technological or economical use.4 Manufacturers are also obligated to list all food preservatives found in products. 

The question that now remains is whether food preservatives are harmful? It would be more realistic to say that harm may be more related to synthetic food preservatives than those occurring naturally. Although excess can be harmful such as in the case of salt, where excessive amounts may influence blood pressure regulation. But this is true for any food preservative. 

Why some synthetic food preservatives are under investigation is due to the possible harm they can cause to an individual’s health when taken in too high quantities. One effect which has been described is the increased risk of having an allergic reaction. Reactions that have been reported with the use of some synthetic food preservatives are extensive and include atopic dermatitis, sweating, itching, abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting, coughing, rhinitis, angioedema, muscle and joint aches, headaches, mood changes, hyperactivity, palpitations and many more.[5] Synthetic food preservatives that are mainly responsible for eliciting allergic reactions include Sulfites, Nitrates, Nitrites and Benzoates. 

A recent policy statement released by the American Academy of Pediatrics further warns consumers of the use of nitrates and nitrites as evidence is reflecting that they may increase the risk of cancer and interfere with thyroid hormone production.6 Caution should therefore be taken when eating food containing these preservatives. 

When all the information is summarized, it is clear that parents should go back to the basics by prioritizing the consumption of fresh and frozen fruit and vegetables as well as avoiding processed meats when preparing meals for family members. 

To find out more about food preservatives, book an appointment with us. Look forward to hearing from you soon! 


  1. Awuchi, C. G., Twinomuhwezi, H., Igwe, V. S. & Amagwula, I. O. 2020. Food Additives and food preservatives for domestic and industrial food applications. Journal of Animal Health, 2(1):1-16. 
  2. Zope, V. P. 2018. Exploring influence of synthetic food preservatives on human health: a review article. Advances in Pharmacology & Toxicology, 19(3).
  3. Rolfes, S.R. & Whitney, E.  2005. Understanding nutrition. 10th ed. Thomson and Wadsworth: United States of America. 
  4. https://www.foodfocus.co.za/assets/documents/Regulations-%20Food preservatives%20and%20antioxidants%20R.%20965%20-%201977%20food preservatives%20updated.pdf Date of access 28/05/2022
  5. Abdulmumeen, H. A., Risikat, A. N. & Sururah, A. R. 2012 . Food: Its food preservatives, additives and applications. International Journal of Chemical and Biochemical Sciences,36-47.
  6. Trasande, L., Shaffer, R. M., Sathyanarayana, S., Lowry, J. A., Ahdoot, S., Baum, C. R., … & Woolf, A. D. 2018. Food additives and child health. Paediatrics, 142(2).

More To Explore