Preservatives – E numbers 200-299

Various ways to make food last longer have been employed throughout history. Unless another method of preserving the food has been used, like freezing or canning, then any food that has a clearly prolonged shelf life is likely to include preservatives. More traditional preservatives such as sugar, salt and vinegar are still used to preserve some foods but just as  likely is some kind of added (probably synthetic) preservative. Most are added to prevent the growth of molds and yeasts but they have some anti-bacterial properties too.

Microbes are everywhere. They are in the air, in the earth, inside our bodies and in the food we eat. Microbes will multiply in the right atmosphere by their millions, and in a really short time, so the certain ones that break down foods are the ones the preservatives are attempting to stop or at least slowing them down. Different microbes react to different preservatives so there are many used in many everyday products and foods. Without them the food would not only deteriorate quickly it would also subsequently allow bacteria that cause deadly illnesses like botulism and salmonella poisoning to spread (especially in animal products).

A common example is that dried fruit (drying is a form of preserving in itself) is often treated with sulphur dioxide (E220) to stop further deterioration. One very important use of preservatives from a food safety angle is its use in processed meats such as ham, bacon, salami and sausages. They are usually treated with nitrite and nitrate during the curing process as bacteria in the meats can cause fatal food poisoning. It is often argued as an example of the benefit of preservatives, in fact, that the tiny ‘safe’ amount of the preservative used far outweighs the potential damage from the deadly bacteria’s they negate.

Many advantages are gained from adding preservatives and generally preserving food. It not only keeps food safer for longer from deterioration or poisonous bacteria, but this allows for increased availability of out of season produce or items that are not native to be transported. Convenience for the consumer is another added value (although can mean the price of the goods is higher) and not only does this mean less wastage but also prevents the need for regular shopping, which is an advantage to many.

Most popular/frequently used in processed foods:

Benzoate preservatives:

  • benzoic acid (E210)
  • sodium benzoate (E211)
  • potassium benzoate (E212)
  • calcium benzoate (E213)

Sulfite preservatives (E220 – E224)

Nisin (E234)

Propionic acid (E280)

Nitrite preservatives:

  • sodium nitrite (E250)
  • potassium nitrite (E249)

Sorbic acid (E200)

Potassium sorbate (E202) – a synthetic preservative used for its antibacterial and anti-fungal properties.

There has been a lot of contention over the use of preservatives in food and there are a number of them in frequent use that have been targeted as not particularly good for us. They are regulated and maximum levels are set to well below amounts that could be deemed at all dangerous. Concern is largely over the accumulation of these ‘tiny, harmless amounts’ over time could increase the risk of cancer. Also, sugar and salt, whether added for flavour or to assist the preservative nature of processed foods, are also under fire. Their over bearing presence in processed food is a mainstay of the argument against it. I’ve discussed the horrors of sugar at length previously, here. And discussed salt here.

Common preservatives that are listed as those to avoid are nitrates (Potassium nitrite and sodium nitrite (E249 and E250) – preserve colour and help fight bacteria – stabilising and flavouring too AND nitrItes are considered worse than nitrAtes), sulphites (prevents discolouration), sodium benzoate (preserves against fermentation or acidification), BHA/BHT (preserves fats and oils – as an antioxidant) however without these there is no longevity to foods and there might be many more cases of food poisoning.

Some health experts associate nitrates and nitrites with asthma, headaches and nausea in some individuals. Sodium nitrite is said to converted to nitrous acid within the human digestive system, and this substance has been associated with high rates of cancer in laboratory animals. Reports show allergies to benzoic acid and sodium benzoate can cause severe reactions.

These preservatives are also argued to be safe (not only by the regulators and manufacturers but by some health officials too) and in some cases the preservative is actually promoted as beneficial. These are commonly used and include ascorbic acid (vitamin C)**, critic acid (and to enhance sour flavours) and sorbates (fight bacteria and yeast).

**However, this is contentious (isn’t everything?!) as many noted experts have pointed out that added elements such as ascorbic acid, retinoic acid and types of tocopherol (…er…sorry getting carried away (showing off more like?!?) I mean, added elements labelled as vitamin C, vitamin A or vitamin E) are not the actual vitamin at all but just a lab created isolation of them (synthetic versions needed to replace the naturally occurring versions lost during processing – especially vitamin C which is destroyed by heat). The essential theory being that vitamins are complex compounds that need to work within a set of multi level parameters and so creating an individual molecular compound from them might well work as a preservative, antioxidants etc. but does not therefore consequently also work within the body as a fully fledged vitamin. I.e. you’re getting the vitamin just not any benefit. The American company ‘Real C’ use the analogy: ‘If you compare Vitamin C to an egg, ascorbic acid would be just the egg shell with nothing inside’.


So, while it is more than likely ‘urban legend’ that bodies are not decomposing in the ground due to the large amount of preservatives eaten in a lifetime (although some sources are adamant it is true and it’s possible that they are adversely affecting the bacteria that usually break down the body after death) it is safe to say that they’re not exactly good for you. The body is still required to break down the chemical and foreign compounds and it would really rather not have to do it too often…and research shows the digestive system struggles to extract any nutritional value from highly preserved foods.


If we go with the theory of there being five basic tastes – sweet, bitter, sour, salty and umami – then it’s no surprise we like salt, is it? I’d go even further and say we are not actually truly aware just how much salt we ‘like’ as it is simply in everything!! So we are just cranked up to taste it, and therefore, almost immune to the levels we taste and consume it at.

Sodium chloride, or common salt, occurs naturally in the world as the mineral halite. The sea is considered an inexhaustible source but there are underground deposits that are mined also. Salt even arrives on earth from Mars! Over 250 million tonnes of salt is produced every year. Cubic in form and available in different sizes. From the rougher, larger forms for winter roadway deicing, through to the courser forms like kosher and pickling salt, and on to the finer granules used as table salt. Salt is used in pickling, canning, preserving, curing, water conditioning and in the making of hundreds of things including bread, butter, cheese, industrial chemicals, wood pulp, rubber, dyes, soaps, glass, polyester and so on….in fact it has around 14,000 different uses!

But the aspect of all this that we are interested in here is what it means to our bodies and its use in the food industry. Salt is the oldest known food additive and has been used to preserve food for centuries (it’s been collected in some part of the world since 6000 BC and the Ancient Egyptians used it to preserve fish back then…), but now it seems to crop up in everything. The British Heart Foundation recommends no more than 6g a day, that’s about a teaspoon. Bear in mind that’s collectively throughout the day so you have to include not only the salt you add as seasoning but the salt already contained within the products you buy and consume. The majority of ready made foods and processed items contain salt. The greatest part of your salt intake will be from these foods rather than the salt you knowingly add. Even items that you think of as ‘sweet’ have salt in them! Read the  labels of the products in your cupboards (breakfast cereals for instance) and you’ll be in for a shock. If an item has more than 1.5g salt or 0.6g sodium per 100g then it’s high and should be avoided. As with sugar the rule of thumb is the more processed and packaged a food item is the more likely it is to be packed with salty nasties. Avoid…!

Many people eat too much salt. You only have to do a quick calculation of a days intake to know if you’re one of them! However, salt (sodium) is vital to human life as it regulates the water balance in our bodies, keeping us hydrated, and is used in nerve and muscle function.

It is generally said that salt puts you at risk of high blood pressure (hypertension) which means you then risk the grim likes of heart disease, kidney failure and stroke. BUT here’s a twist in the tale…some recent research has shown this is not strictly the case and that it could be only those who are ‘salt sensitive’ that may benefit from a reduced intake. It is a hotly contested debate. The British Heart Foundation recommends a reduced sodium diet and intake, warning of the possible dangers, yet there are those disputing the benefits of this reduction like the American Journal of Hypertension saying, ‘there is not any positive direct evidence to support such recommendations.’ Well…I’ll be…! BUT (again) other studies and scientific journals state categorically that we should reduce our sodium intake below 6g per day to reduce the risks of any consequential ill health.

Dehydration and swelling also feature as salt related concerns. There is no doubt that excess salt makes you thirsty and crave fluids, which in turn could be retained by the body making you feel bloated and swelling your ankles, feet and calves particularly…not a good look. Osteoporosis and kidney disorders are said to be linked to excess salt in the diet. Too much salt could also be giving you acid reflux or heart burn as it can mess with your acid balance…and the list goes on.
SO, surely (I know…don’t call me Shirley) anything above what your body actually, truthfully, practically needs is excessive…let’s use a bit of logic here and just think that until there is a definitive, proof laden decision on the health aspect..why risk it?!? WHY?!!?
So let’s make a deal and cut back and be healthier. Deal? Great!
Let’s shake on it…

Spam fritters…

First a word about Spam. The tins don’t have the nutritional values on them. I think I know why. A 2oz slice (roughly a sixth of the can) has not only the faintest trace of a vitamin, but 15g of fat in it (6g saturated) and 767mg of sodium! That’s a quarter of your daily allowance of fat and third of your daily allowance of salt in one slice! Some protein, and practically no carbs on the other hand (clutching at straws)…it’s hardly a fair swap before you get too excited…

I saw this before I even opened the can but pressed on regardless (something about angels and fools treading) and the first impact you get is from the smell, which is, to be frank, enough to send you reeling. Cold sweaty cat food.


The dog, however, moved faster than has ever been known and was drawn to the tin as if by some kind of olfactory tractor beam and she begged and quivered and gibbered around me. Make of that what you will…

Then the glistening lurid pinkness of it as it emerges (easier said than done it turns out) from the tin all congealed and claggy…oof! Still, I’m intrepid (read a fool) if nothing else, so I slice it into six slices and begin the trial. ‘Fully cooked. Ready to eat hot or cold’ it proudly boasts on the can so I bite into the cold candy pink slab…what can I say?!? Hell…it’s salty!! @*%k me!! Hmmm this is a problem. I love salt but even I think this is like a mouthful of the Dead Sea so I put a couple of slices in a dish of cold water in an attempt to draw some of the salt out.

With the remaining four slices I tried the following ‘fritter’ action…don’t judge me…

  1. The straight forward fry. Literally just fried it till it crisped up on both sides.
  2. A basic batter like for fish and chips (I used self raising flour as that’s what I had to hand, so just flour and water – no seasoning as that can retard the crisping process, I’m told – beaten to a smooth thin batter).
  3. Then the same as above but with a sort of Welsh Rarebit twist! I added wholegrain mustard, Worcester sauce and paprika.
  4. The above but with strong cheddar added (only cheese I had in). This seems like lunacy as the saltiness will be increased but I am clearly heady with mild hysteria and just throwing caution and sense to the wind. You can tell I was getting desperate to find something to counter act the Spam…render it edible…

Well, I think you can already imagine what it all tasted like. Yup…salt. Porky salt at times and then a surprise hint of mustard or cheese for a second then back to salt. The silver lining was I downed a couple of glasses of crisp, ice cold Chenin to quench my blinding thirst – the water had been turned off…apparently…

So what of the soaked slices…?

It’s so robust it didn’t even flinch from being soaked for an hour! So, I dipped a finger in the water and guess what…? (I know this is boringly predictable isn’t it?) Ah-ha!! Gotcha!! It didn’t taste of salt! The soaking hadn’t made any difference at all except it had left a weird film on the water…I’ve chosen to ignore that. An apprehensive nibble at the corner of a piece revealed it to taste exactly the same – although at this point by tongue felt like a piece of beef jerky so it’s not to be trusted. I’m so loathe to reject, waste or give up on any food that I started imagining what I could do to salvage the Spam and keep it in the canon of allowable food stuffs. It was probably the chenin but I begun to think that if I made a form of Spam-hash from it (no! Not to smoke…) the potatoes might absorb and disperse the saltiness etc and hey panko it’d be transformed into a good hearty brunch item, slap a fried egg on it…mmmm…then the glass began to slip from my hand and I woke myself up from this nightmare and chucked the lot in the bin.

Spam is banished. Whatever preparation the underlying fact is it’s painfully high in fat and salt so why bother? There is never going to be another mention of it and the remaining tin I have at home will be ceremoniously destroyed. I applied to have it jettisoned into space but NASA predicted its salt content alone would cause it to return to earth within ninety minutes and probably clobber me on the head…karma innit…

Just to really mess with all our heads I did the exact same with a tin of corned beef as well. I have no idea why. None. The tin was there and I figured I’ll never eat it otherwise and caught up in the craziness of Spamgate I just went with it. I even tried an extra stage with the corned beef though – I added Branston pickle to the batter…

…I need to go and lie down…