Q: I am allergic to potassium sorbate and get hives and diarrhea from it. It seems to be harder and harder to find foods without it. It's in candy now, too, and cake mix. Why the change from natural preservatives?
-- B. M., Delaware
A: The change from natural preservatives in processed foods is decades old.
Potassium sorbate, which is the potassium salt of sorbic acid, has been used for many years in commercially prepared foods. The chemical does occur naturally; however, a synthetic version of the salt is what is used in food manufacturing. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration considers it safe.
My research indicates it is widely used as a preservative in dairy products (yogurt, cheese, dips and ice cream), and in soft drinks, pickles, wine, olives, baked goods and dried fruits and meats. It has been used in fast-food milkshakes, too.
Manufacturers use it because it is cost-effective and works well to prolong the shelf life of foods. Potassium sorbate is excellent at preventing molds and other bacteria from forming, which accounts for its wide use in dairy.
Although it is probably not the answer you are hoping for, the use of potassium sorbate probably will not end soon. You will have to continue to carefully read ingredient lists to avoid it, or opt for organic foods prepared without preservatives.
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