Do food preservatives cause cancer?

Additives are added to foods to prolong shelf and storage life and to improve the flavour, colour, and texture of processed foods. The possible role of food preservatives in cancer risk is an area of great public interest.

Sodium Nitrate and Sodium Nitrite are used as preservatives and add colour and flavour to processed meats. The International Agency for the Research of Cancer (IARC) has reviewed ingested nitrates and nitrites and classified them as probably carcinogenic (cancer causing) to humans. IARC is a part of the World Health Organisation which convenes international expert working groups to evaluate the evidence of the carcinogenicity of specific exposures. Nitrates and nitrites have been linked to bowel cancer, one of the most common cancers in men and women in Australia. Food Standards Australian and New Zealand (FSANZ) allows these preservatives in small quantities in some foods that have a risk of being contaminated with harmful bacteria, when the risk of adverse health effects from botulism (caused by this bacteria) is much greater than the risk of developing cancer from small amounts of nitrates/nitrites. Food manufacturers wanting to use nitrites must show that nitrosamines (the by-products of nitrites formed under certain conditions, such as the strong acidic condition of the human stomach, or high temperatures of frying pans) will not form in hazardous amounts in the product when the additives are used as intended by the manufacturer.

FSANZ carries out safety assessments on food additives before they can be made available to consumers to ensure that: the additive is safe; that there are good technological reasons for the use; and that consumers will be clearly informed about its presence. Extensive testing of food additives is required, and before their use is approved, FSANZ evaluates these data to ensure food additives are safe.  All such food safety legislative controls in Australia mean that consumers can feel comfortable that the food products available in our country are not associated with an increased risk of cancer.