09/04/2014 12:37 pm ET | Updated Nov 04, 2014

These Chemicals Are Keeping Your Food Fresh

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Many of the foods we eat are full of chemicals. From emulsifiers to dough conditioners, a processed food item's ingredients label can reveal a mind-boggling gamut of long scientific names you probably didn't even see in chemistry class.

Click Here to see the Complete List of the Chemicals That Are Keeping Your Food Fresh

One of the most common kinds of additive in our food is a preservative (or several), which helps to keep it fresh. Today we're demystifying what those are, and helping you understand what exactly they do.

There are three varieties of preservatives: antimicrobials, which stop bacteria, yeasts, and molds from growing; antioxidants, which slow the oxidation of fats, which can turn food rancid; and compounds that inhibit rot in produce.

A whole host of preservatives fall into these categories: sulfites, propionates, benzoates, nitrates, chelates.... These have all been approved for use by the FDA, and are generally considered to be safe. Still, calcium disodium ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid isn't exactly the most appetizing-sounding addition to your diet.

Many of these chemicals are synthesized in a lab, and basically look like white powders before they're added to your food. There are of course plenty of other ways to preserve food without the use of chemicals -- canning or salting, for example -- but you can't exactly stick a loaf of Wonder Bread in a can.

The next time you check the ingredients listed on a product at the store, make a note of what preservatives are there, if any. If you're concerned, there are thankfully plenty of preservative-free items out there. They might spoil a little bit quicker, but at least you won't be eating any calcium disodium ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid.

  • Dimethyl Dicarbonate
    This chemical is primarily used to preserve beverages, thanks to its ability to inhibit the growth of certain enzymes. Along with sulfur dioxide, it’s one of the most popular wine preservatives, and can also be found in some sports drinks, sodas, and iced teas. Photo Credit: itemmaster.comClick Here to see More of the Chemicals Keeping Your Foods Fresh
  • Sodium Benzoate
    This benzoic acid-derived salt kills bacteria in acidic conditions, so it can be found in everything from salad dressings to pickles to Aunt Jemima pancake syrup. It’s come under fire in recent years because it’s been discovered that toxic benzene can be produced when combined with vitamin C, but it’s in the process of being phased out of most products that contain both of those, as well as Coca-Cola products. Photo Credit:
  • Calcium Sulfate
    This calcium salt (a close relative of plaster of Paris and gypsum) is an acidity regulator and flour stabilizing agent. It’s been cleared for use in a whole lot of foods, but is most commonly found in highly-processed breads like Wonder Bread. Photo Credit: itemmaster.comClick Here to see More of the Chemicals Keeping Your Foods Fresh
  • Sodium Nitrite
    This is one of the only preservatives that you can identify without even looking at the label: it’s what gives hot dogs, bacon, and lunch meats like bologna that pink color, and kills off bacteria and other microbes, most notably those that cause botulism. Consuming excessive quantities of nitrite-treated foods can lead to respiratory problems, cancer, and digestive issues, and pregnant women who eat it in high quantities put their baby at risk of developing Type 1 diabetes. Photo Credit:
  • BHT
    BHT, or butylated hydroxytoluene, is an antioxidant that prevents fats from spoiling and is also used as a yeast de-foaming agent. It’s found in plenty of baked goods and snack foods, as well as cereals like Frosted Flakes. Click Here to see More of the Chemicals Keeping Your Foods FreshPhoto Credit:

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-Dan Myers, The Daily Meal

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