This informational post thanks to The Motherhood and ConAgra Foods. All opinions are my own. 

Preservatives. For some, this is an ugly word. We don’t want preservatives in our foods – we just want to eat ‘all natural’ and choose fresh foods. Does this sound familiar? I have to say, I tend to be on the same wavelength when it comes to the food I choose for my family… I don’t want to feed my kids a bunch of chemicals or anything that could potentially harm their health down the road.

I know that there are lots of different ways to preserve foods that don’t always have to include scary chemicals. What I didn’t know that antioxidants are a huge part of this. ConAgra foods and The Motherhood recently asked me to take part in a virtual Q&A with a panel of experts would share some information on antioxidants as preservatives with myself and other bloggers. I was intrigued to hear what they had to say.

Lime - antioxidants

So what are antioxidants?

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.

When air hits something the oxygen in the air starts to break down the fats and oils in our food causing them to go rancid. This not only makes them smell and taste bad, but in some cases they can be hazardous to our health. Antioxidants can help control that. Foods like breads, cereals and even microwave popcorn would spoil in just a couple of days without antioxidants.

Think about the last time you cut up an apple or an avocado and they started turning brown pretty darn fast. What is one thing you can do to prevent that if you are not eating it right away? Do you add some lemon or lime juice? That is what I do, and by doing so I am adding an antioxidant to preserve my food!

All about antioxidants in our food – via ConAgra Foods


  • Lanie Friedman Director, Communications & External Relations at ConAgra Foods
  • Kelly Magurany, Sc., DABT Principal Research Scientists- Toxicology – Food Protection and Regulatory Affairs at ConAgra Foods
  • Kristi Reimers, RD, PhD, Nutrition Director of Nutrition in Research & Innovations at ConAgra Foods

Why should we preserve our food?

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

How can we preserve our food?

  • Methods like canning and freezing – even putting foods in the fridge helps to preserve foods.
  • Ingredients can be added to everyday packaged foods to help preserve them.

Antioxidants in the Body

  • 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
  • Body benefits of antioxidants:
    • Slow the aging process
    • Boost your body’s natural defense system
    • Help combat heart disease, cancer and other diseases

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
  • 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”
  • Food benefits of antioxidants:
  • Prevent food from becoming rancid (spoiling), and therefore wasted
  • Preserve food’s flavors
  • Help preserve natural color in food

Antioxidants Naturally Found in Food

  • 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

Man-Made Antioxidants in Food

  • 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

Natural v. Man Made Antioxidants

  • Man made antioxidants, like BHT and TBHQ, 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
  • One type is used over another based on performance – 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 in our favorite foods
  • 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

Learn a bit more about antioxidants in our food by watching this Mental Floss video about preservative facts.

After viewing their presentation and listening to the experts tell us more information about antioxidants, they opened up the floor for questions. Let me tell you, we flooded them with questions. There were some really thought-provoking questions asked and I’m happy to share some of what we learned.

Questions about antioxidants – answered by ConAgra Foods expert panel

If there are natural antioxidants available, what is the need for man-made antioxidants? 

  • Natural antioxidants often times impart a flavor, a taste or even an odor to foods, so they are not always the best choice for us if we want to maintain the high quality of flavors that our consumers love. So we look to man-made antioxidants that are tasteless and colorless and odorless at the low levels used in food to maintain those flavors.

What are some examples of packaged foods that use antioxidants as preservatives? 

  • 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. Things like microwaved popcorn, cookies, and cereal products all would contain antioxidants.

Are natural antioxidants modified to use in foods they don’t come naturally in?

  • Natural antioxidants are often extracted from the food products, but they’re also synthetically produced. There is actually no difference chemically in a naturally produced antioxidant and one that’s developed by man-made techniques. They’re often developed in man-made ways because it’s a more cost-effective way and actually protects our food supply. So although humans may make an antioxidant from a natural compound, they can also synthesize them, but they’re exactly the same. There is no difference.

What are BHT and TBHQ? What are they made from?

  • BHT stands for butylated hydroxytoluene and TBHQ stands for tertiary- butylhydroquinone. They’re chemical names, but … their structures are very similar to natural antioxidants. So, where they come from or are made from are similar sources. And there are a variety of sources. One example of a source in making BHT is pine oil. But that is not the only option. Our suppliers identify the most cost-effective way in developing these compounds.

How long have BHT and TBHQ been in use? Is it something that has been a part of food production for a while?

  • Yes, these types of compounds have been used for over 60 years in foods and they really parallel the advent of packaging of food products and also our understanding of the science of oxidation in foods.

Do we know by the packaging if a preservative is natural or man-made?

  • On the ingredient label they will typically list out the identity of the ingredient, but they don’t typically list out the source of it.

Preservative-Free is a major buzzword on food labels. Why is that if they are healthy for you?

  • There are actually many different types of preservatives. Today, we’re focusing on antioxidants and what we know about antioxidants is that they’re very safe for use in food based on the available science.
  • As far as the healthfulness, we know that all preservatives in foods are safe. When one is misinformed and you start hearing all these things about words you can’t pronounce and are told to look for a clean label and those sorts of things, then there becomes a consumer demand for things like “preservative free”. As a company, we often times respond to that consumer demand, but it doesn’t mean we’re making a change that was health based. It’s simply making a change that is consumer demand based.

Have cancer rates been monitored over the time period that BHT and TBHQ been used?

  • In general, the science world monitors cancer rates for everything. But there has actually been work done with BHT in looking at any increased cancer rates. Large epidemiology studies, which are studies in populations of humans, found that there was no increase risk, and in fact, they saw a decreased cancer risk. What they find is that these antioxidants do have some anti-carcinogenic properties.

What is the difference between antioxidants and preservatives? Is it because antioxidants sound more consumer-friendly? Is there an actual difference or are they the same thing?

There is actually a difference. The difference is that preservatives identify all compounds used to preserve food with different functions. So some preservatives are used to reduce bacterial populations in food. Antioxidants are specific to oxidized damage. An antioxidant is actually a type of preservative.


So there you have it! While I do think that some of the questions were not fully answered to my liking (like the one about the healthfulness of preservatives — I’m not sure I agree with the statement that all preservatives in foods are safe, which I’m guessing they stated because they are all FDA approved), but at least you do have a bit more info about one type of preservative – antioxidants!


So tell us…

What are your thoughts and/or questions on antioxidants? Did you realize they are in so many foods you eat every day?