What “preservative-free” really means…

The food industry is up to its old tricks again.

It’s a wonder to me how they’ve been given carte blanche to pull the wool over our eyes at every opportunity — with government approval, no less.  They jump on every diet bandwagon — “low fat,” “low carb,” “gluten-free,” “all natural” — with enthusiastic abandon. And virtually NO regulation of their claims.

The goal, of course, is to try to convince us that the garbage they’re peddling is healthy… when in fact, nothing could be further from the truth. And while I’d like to believe that most consumers see right through these crooked sales tactics, sadly, statistics tell a different story.

So, let’s take a look at the latest debacle crowding supermarket aisles…

According to the most recent numbers, the percentage of new food and beverage products that claimed “no additives or preservatives” nearly doubled in the last few years — jumping from just over 12 percent in 2012 to more than 20 percent in 2015.

Along with that, more and more companies are vowing to reformulate existing products in an effort to do away with these “artificial” ingredients. And we’re talking about the big guys, too — like Burger King, for example.

On the surface, this all seems promising. After all, at least consumers are catching wind of the fact that, even if the FDA says a certain ingredient is safe and legal, that doesn’t mean humans have any business eating it.

In fact, one U.S. consumer poll showed that Americans now believe that preservatives and chemicals will do more damage to their health than the usual “bad guys” like added sugar, saturated fat, and sodium. And with the exception of added sugar — which, as you know, is one of this country’s deadliest public enemies — they’re right.

As a result, companies are seeking “natural” alternatives to common additives like calcium sorbate, calcium propionate, potassium benzoate, and many, many others. Which doesn’t sound like a problem at all… until you read the fine print.

New technologies include vacuum packing, aseptic packaging, and high pressure processing. Along with that, the industry has also seen a rise in the use of “natural” antioxidants and antimicrobials. But unfortunately, they may not be a big step up.

Take packaged bread products, for example. Food manufacturers have come up with ways to replace calcium propionate — a common additive that inhibits mold.

One of these “natural” alternatives is a process called whole fraction fermentate. (If you see “cultured wheat flour” or “cultured wheat starch” listed on the ingredient label, that’s your tip-off that this method was used.)

In a nutshell, it works like this: Manufacturers ferment wheat starch, creating antimicrobial byproducts that they can then spray dry and add to flour. (Other alternatives include spraying “natural” anti-fungals like natamycin on the bread.)

The million dollar question, of course, is are these alternatives really all that “natural”? Are they safe? Have they been tested on humans? The answer to all of those questions, unfortunately, is “who knows?”

But here’s what I do know: If you’re going to eat bread — and let me simply say that I don’t suggest it — you’re better off just going the extra mile to make it yourself or buy it freshly made. It’s actually quite simple. But if you’re really strapped for time, bakeries are never too hard to find.

And the same can be said for fresher alternatives to just about every packaged food I can think of. Farmer’s markets, local specialty shops — and most importantly, your own kitchen — can almost always produce higher quality versions of any given processed food.

So really, why do we need packaged foods of this sort in the first place? It’s pure, unadulterated laziness on the part of us consumers. And while it may be more convenient, let’s be honest, here… the most convenient option is almost never the healthiest option.

I could go on and on with the details. What is done to dairy during processing, for example — or hummus (which is pretty universally considered a health food), processed meats, and even (maybe particularly) fats and oils.

But here’s the bottom line: If you want to stay healthy, don’t be fooled by the latest generation of so-called “preservative-free” packaged and processed foods. As the old saying goes, “better the devil you know…”