5 food preservatives to have on your watch list

Added to processed foods to stop nasties in their tracks, for your health’s sake it’s worth keeping an eye on a few food preservatives in particular.

Some 400 food additives are approved for use in Australia, and a fair few of them are preservatives.

Listed on food labels by either their name or their code number, food preservatives fall in the 200 range.

The more processed foods you eat, the more preservatives you’ll eat, too.

“That’s not necessarily a problem, particularly when you consider that some food additives – including some preservatives – are found naturally in foods, too,” says dietitian Milly Smith.

“Plus, it’s important to remember that food preservatives are used to prevent the growth of things like mould and bacteria, which can often be really dangerous for your health if you eat them.”

Still, not only are some preservatives more likely than others to trigger respiratory, digestive or skin reactions in sensitive people, a few also have a bit of a controversial reputation as far as your health’s concerned.

Here are five food preservatives to look out for.


Added to dairy products, dried fruits and meats and juices to inhibit the growth of moulds and yeasts, four sorbates are used – sorbic acid (200), sodium sorbate (201), potassium sorbate (202) and calcium sorbate (203).

Although these may be less likely to cause problems or reactions than other preservatives, they’re still on the list of additives that need to be temporarily eliminated as part of an “allergy diet” designed to identify food sensitivities.


There are nine of these, using code numbers 210 to 218. Commonly used to preserve drinks, when sodium benzoate (211) is combined with vitamin C in a drink it can form benzene.

A known cancer-causing carcinogen, when Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) tested 68 drinks, more than half contained benzene – most at levels well below the World Health Organisation’s standard for drinking water, but some contained four times the “safe” amount.


Used in fruit juices, dried fruit and vegetables, pickles, sausages, dips and wine, there are nine types of sulphites, using code numbers 220-228.

Sulphur dioxide (220) and sodium metabisulphite (223) are the most commonly used sulphites.

Sulphites can cause allergy-like reactions, such as hay fever and hives. Plus, one in 10 people with asthma experience wheezing, chest tightness and coughing when they eat foods that contain a sulphite.

Nitrites and nitrates

There are four of these – potassium and sodium nitrite (249 and 250) and potassium and sodium nitrate (251 and 252).

Nitrites and nitrates are both used to preserve processed meats like ham, salami and bacon and when they’re eaten they get converted into nitrosamines, which can increase the risk of cancer.

It’s part of the reason why your long-term risk of bowel cancer increases by 18 per cent if you eat 50g of processed meat, or roughly two slices of bacon, every day.

“As a result, the official advice is to eat little, if any, processed meat, remembering that, in situations like this, the goal is always trying to limit intake rather than necessarily banning a food,” says Milly.


Added to bread and bakery products to prevent or delay mould from growing, there are four of these (280-283), with calcium propionate (282) being the most widely used.

The health risk? While more research is needed, a study published in 2019 suggests that there’s a link between consuming propionates and developing insulin resistance, which increases the risk of type 2 diabetes.

Worried about sensitivity to preservatives?

“If you suspect you have a sensitivity to a preservative – or any food or nutrient – due to symptoms you’re experiencing, first of all, see your GP to rule out anything else,” says Milly.

“And then, only undertake an elimination diet followed by a food challenge under the guidance of a health professional so you can get a clear picture of what might be causing symptoms as well as avoiding nutritional deficiencies.”

Written by Karen Fittall.