Food Preservation

Preservatives play a crucial role in our modern food supply, ensuring that our food remains safe, palatable, and nutritious for extended periods. They are substances added to food to slow down deterioration, inhibit the growth of microorganisms, and extend shelf-life. Understanding preservatives, their types, and how they work can help us make informed decisions about the food we consume.

The Science Behind Food Preservation

Food preservation is a complex process. It involves protecting food from deterioration caused by a variety of factors, including chemical, physical, and microbiological elements. Microorganisms such as bacteria, fungi, yeasts, and molds are often the culprits behind food spoilage. However, it's essential to note that not all microorganisms are harmful. Some are useful in imparting particular fragrances or flavors to food as seen in the maturation phases of certain products.

Preservatives primarily protect food from the harmful action of bacteria, fungi, and molds. The primary concern is to prevent food from going bad or becoming toxic due to the presence of these microorganisms or their toxins, which can be harmful, even lethal, to humans. To this end, specific preservatives are used against each type of microorganism, and often, multiple preservatives are used simultaneously in food products. When multiple preservatives are used, their maximum dosage decreases based on the number of preservatives used.

Types of Preservatives

Preservatives fall into several categories, each with a specific role in food preservation:

  1. Antimicrobials: These preservatives limit and hinder the development of bacterial flora, which could cause alterations to the food.
  2. Substances with Preservative Action: Some substances primarily serve other purposes but also have a preservative action.
  3. Antioxidants: These substances prolong the shelf life of food by preventing deterioration caused by oxidative processes, such as rancidity of fats or color changes. Antioxidants are considered preservatives because they hinder the action of oxygen in contact with the product.

Preservatives must be listed on food labels like any other additive. They are typically represented by the letter E followed by a number. Those in the strict sense are marked with the letter E followed by three digits between 200 and 299 or directly with the name of the preservative itself.

Within this numbering system, preservatives are further divided into ten macro groups:

  1. Sorbates (E200-209): These are used to inhibit the growth of molds, yeasts, and fungi.
  2. Benzoates (E210-219): Commonly used to prevent the growth of yeast and bacteria.
  3. Sulfides (E220-229): These are primarily used for their antimicrobial properties.
  4. Phenols and Formates (E230-239): Used for their antifungal and antibacterial properties.
  5. Nitrites (E240-249): This range is typically used for nitrites, which are also used in meat curing and as preservatives.
  6. Nitrates (E250-259): Often used in curing meats to preserve color and prevent bacterial growth.
  7. Acetates (E260-269): Utilized for their antimicrobial and pH regulating properties.
  8. Lactates (E270-279): These are used for preservation and flavor enhancement in various foods.
  9. Propionates (E280-289): Commonly used in baked goods to prevent mold and bacterial growth.
  10. Others (E290 and above): This category includes various other preservatives that don't fall into the above categories, each with its specific purpose and application.

Understanding these categories and their corresponding numbers can help consumers make more informed choices about the food they consume.


Preservatives are an integral part of the modern food industry and by understanding the types and roles of preservatives, we can make more informed decisions about our food. As consumers, it is our responsibility to be aware of what goes into our food, and understanding preservatives is a significant step in that direction.

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The Wellyme Team

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