Five Things You Might Not Know about Antioxidants And Preservatives #AntioxidantFacts

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This post is brought to you by ConAgra Foods & The Motherhood. Please note that, as always, any personal opinions reflected in this post are my own.


Some people today are quite vigilant about what is in their food. When I was a young married woman in the late 80s just starting to learn about food and cooking, people didn’t pay attention to food ingredients in the way that some do today. Truthfully, nowadays I hear discussions on what’s in food and I sometimes think “well I never heard of that before and people have been eating that since I was young and we’re fine”.

I do get a bit curious about certain topics, particularly when they are topics they just weren’t discussed years ago. And I like to learn things. I thought it made sense to try and learn a bit more about a topic I see big discussions every now and again. The subject of one of those discussions is antioxidants and preservatives. Until last week I had little knowledge of either. I knew preservatives were, well, preservatives – something that helped preserve something else. Antioxidants, well I knew the meaning of the word – against oxidation – but I didn’t know any details on what that was all about when it pertained to food.

Recently, ConAgra Foods held a virtual briefing sharing information about antioxidants and food preservation. I welcomed the opportunity to learn a bit more about the topic, as I feel I can’t even really read a discussion about it properly if I don’t have any of the facts needed to form an opinion. Presenters included Lanie Friedman, Director, Communications & External Relations at ConAgra Foods; Kelly Magurany, M.Sc., DABT, Principal Research Scientists- Toxicology – Food Protection and Regulatory Affairs at ConAgra Foods; and Kristi Reimers, RD, PhD, Nutrition, Director of Nutrition in Research & Innovations at ConAgra Foods. Here are the top take-aways I got from the presentation.

Why should we preserve our food?

There are five main reasons we should preserve our food:

  • Taste
  • Freshness
  • Safety
  • Natural color preservation
  • Food waste reduction

How can we preserve our food?

The most common ways to preserve food are through methods like canning and freezing. Even putting foods in the fridge helps preserve them. Another way to preserve foods is by adding ingredients to every day packaged foods.

What is an antioxidant?

Antioxidants help prevent oxygen from damaging other molecules. Antioxidants function in the body to help protect cells, and they function in foods to protect oils from damage that leads to rancidity. I feel it is important to note that while antioxidants are preservatives, not all preservatives are antioxidants.

Antioxidants are just one type of preservative. Antioxidants function specifically to prevent the oxidation of fats & oils and other compounds in food. Oxidation is the process by which components in the air break-down fats and oils in foods into those with off-flavors and odors, often referred to as rancidity. Other types of food preservatives (such as calcium sorbate and sodium benzoate) function to prevent food spoilage from things like molds, fungus, bacteria and yeast.

Where do you find antioxidants?

We have many antioxidants that are naturally produced in our body every day, such as after exercise; these antioxidants help fend off environmental toxins and stress on the body. Our bodies carefully control the amount of antioxidants in our cells; we can get very sick if the normal level of antioxidants in our body becomes too low. Some of our most important vitamins, such as vitamin E and vitamin C, are used in our body as antioxidants. Some of the ways antioxidants benefit our bodies include slowing of the aging process, boosting the body’s natural defense system, and helping to combat heart disease, cancer and other diseases.

There are also antioxidants in food. Like the vitamins in your body, certain foods contain natural antioxidants, such as polyphenols; some foods may also contain man made antioxidants. Why are there antioxidants in food? When you open a box of food, the exposure to air can cause certain ingredients that are common in our food, like fats and oils, to spoil; the unpleasant odors and flavors that follow are sometimes called “rancidity”. Some of the ways that antioxidants benefit food are that they help preserve food’s flavors and natural colors, and that they help prevent food from becoming rancid (spoiling), and therefore wasted.

In foods like carrots and kale, natural antioxidants help preserve the color and freshness. Examples of packaged foods that use antioxidants as preservatives include things like microwaved popcorn, cookies, and cereal products. Any food product that contains a fat or oil will typically have an antioxidant added either to the starting batter oil or to the end food product.

Natural v. Man Made Antioxidants – What Are Their Differences And Why Use One Over The Other?

Some of the antioxidants naturally found in food include:

  • Alpha-tocopherol (aka Vitamin E) – Found in nuts, seeds and leafy green vegetables – helps to protect fats and oils in food from spoiling
  • Ascorbic Acid (aka Vitamin C) – Found in citrus fruits, sometimes also called sodium ascorbate –saves breads and packaged meat from spoiling
  • Citric Acid – Found naturally in citrus fruits – used to preserve sliced fruit

Some of the man made antioxidants commonly in food include:

  • BHT: A tasteless, colorless man made antioxidant is used to help maintain freshness in grain-based foods like crackers and cookies
  • TBHQ: A tasteless, colorless man made antioxidant used commonly to keep vegetable oils and other packaged foods fresh

One type of antioxidant is used over another based on performance. Man made antioxidants like BHT and TBHQ, which are tasteless, colorless and odorless at low levels, have been used for over 60 years. They are used because sometimes natural antioxidants throw off flavors of foods we know and love, or because a certain antioxidant might perform best with a certain food. Food makers, like ConAgra Foods, choose certain preservative ingredients based on what they know will deliver the best flavor, while keeping your foods safe and fresh. For example TBHQ is often used in fryer oils as it is more stable at higher temperatures than BHT, thus preserving these foods more effectively. Natural and man made antioxidants are sometimes used together.

Whether man-made or natural, antioxidants are used to preserve the flavor, color, and improve the shelf-life of foods. Both are evaluated for their safe use in food by scientific experts trained to understand the impact on human health. (In fact, some large epidemiology studies found that antioxidants have some anti-carcinogenic properties.) Both function to reduce rancidity in food by preventing the breakdown of fats and oils (and other compounds). Both must be used at low levels in accordance with regulatory guidelines and safety thresholds. Both must be “food grade” so as not to introduce hazardous by-products or impurities in foods. Both are used to provide food with a high quality and flavor, so that consumers like you and I may enjoy the foods that we love.

Check out this video from mental_floss that helps explain 6 facts about antioxidants and preservatives!

In case you’d like to read more, here is a list of the references used in the presentation.

  • US FDA Food Ingredients, Colors, and Additives overview
  • Epidemiology study BHA/BHT:
  •…Antioxidants_Regulatory_Status/…/ 0912f51226729b259b000000.pdf
  • EFSA TBHQ opinion 2004:
  • EFSA BHT opinion 2012:

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Robin (Masshole Mommy) April 15, 2015 - 7:30 pm

My parents do a lot of canning, but me not so much. I want to start getting into it more.

Jennifer April 15, 2015 - 7:40 pm

This is a pretty cool article. I had no idea there was even such a thing as man made antioxidants.

KeLsey Apkey April 15, 2015 - 7:42 pm

I had no idea all these!!! Thanks for your knowledge!

Ann Bacciaglia April 15, 2015 - 7:58 pm

This is such a great informative post. I have learned a lot about preservatives. I have always wanted to try canning.

Chelley @ AisForAdelaide April 15, 2015 - 8:13 pm

This is awesome info! I love farmers’ markets- I always get the best berries there!

Amy April 15, 2015 - 8:26 pm

I actually grow my own strawberries, blueberries, and raspberries. I love them so much!

Kelly Hutchinson April 15, 2015 - 8:43 pm

I knew antioxidants were important for our health, but did not know there were natural as well as man made. Very interesting.

Liz Mays April 15, 2015 - 8:47 pm

This is very interesting. I didn’t know there were both natural and man made antioxidants.

MT5B April 15, 2015 - 9:00 pm

I cannot stand how almost all foods have preservatives in them for this reason I started making many of our foods homemade like bread for instance.

Shauna April 15, 2015 - 9:06 pm

Wow, what an informative post. Thank you so much for sharing…

Danielle April 15, 2015 - 9:34 pm

This is pretty interesting. I always hear about preserving and the term antioxidants, but really didn’t quite understand the extent of them.

Allie D. April 15, 2015 - 9:43 pm

I remember learning some of this information in my science classes. I love using lemons and limes to prevent my avocados and guacamole from turning the yucky brownish black color. Squeezing some of the lemon and lime not only adds flavor, but also helps maintain the beautiful green color.

Amanda April 15, 2015 - 10:35 pm

I’ve never learned to can, but see a lot of my friends doing it. I think it’s time that I try!

Sarah @ Must Have Mom April 15, 2015 - 10:38 pm

Great info to know! I’ll be switching up our next shopping list a bit.

Vera Sweeney April 15, 2015 - 11:44 pm

This si great information on Antioxidants. They are vey important to include in your diet.

Tammi @ My Organized Chaos April 16, 2015 - 8:23 am

wow, a lot of this, I had no idea! Such an informative post!

Dogvills April 16, 2015 - 11:00 am

Wow, this is a great article. I didn’t know almost any of it. It is something I need to focus on more.

Danielle Royalegacy April 16, 2015 - 12:00 pm

I understand the reasoning behind Con Agra doing a good-will campaign on BHT since there has been a bit of an outcry to ban it. It’s already banned in Europe. TBHQ, reading up on it, sounds like something I would like to avoid as well. I am quite sure that having these preservatives in very low doses most likely won’t do much harm, but it’s also not something that I want in my foods that I consume every day. I do try to avoid man made preservatives and sweeteners as much as possible.

Alena Belleque April 16, 2015 - 4:09 pm

Yes, same here. These substances aren’t the devil incarnate, but they’re not entirely safe, either. You did a great job on this post, though!

Emily April 16, 2015 - 2:46 pm

These are pretty neat facts. I didn’t know we had a man made antioxidant… I love getting berries of all kinds my boys love them too.

Kristin Wheeler (Mama Luvs Books) April 16, 2015 - 3:26 pm

Thanks for sharing! I didn’t know all these healthy facts! I need to eat more berries!

patricia Marsden April 29, 2015 - 9:02 am

Fresh fruit and veggies are still the best, but preservatives are a good thing when they are not convenient or available.


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