What Is Calcium Propionate and Is It Safe to Eat?

White bread with sesame seeds
Greg Elms / Getty Images

Question: I worry about food additives, and there are so many I don't recognize. For example, what is calcium propionate? Calcium sounds okay but what's the propionate part? Is it really safe to eat foods that have it listed as an ingredient?

Answer: Calcium propionate is used as a preservative in bread and other baked goods, and it may be combined with along with propionic acid and sodium propionate.

 Calcium propionate helps keep those baked goods fresh by preventing mold and bacterial growth that would cause them to go bad. Calcium propionate also occurs naturally in butter and some types of cheese.

Sometimes consumers have questions about the safety of calcium propionate.  We understand that food additives sound scary and many people are concerned about the idea of preservatives that are used as ingredients in the foods we eat. But, think of it this way: do you want to take a chance on eating bacteria- or mold-infested bread? Probably not. Preservatives such as calcium propionate are important for keeping some healthy foods safe.

Calcium Propionate Safety Studies

Calcium propionate has been studied extensively for potential toxicity and for any possibility that it might cause cancer. All the laboratory findings were negative, except for two studies. One study involved injecting large amounts of calcium propionate into yolk sacks of chicken embryos, which just isn't something that's going to happen with humans.

Another study involving young, vitamin B-12 deficient rats also demonstrated issues with weight loss. The study findings suggested that massive amounts of calcium propionate could result in a decrease in growth rates during the study. But, the amount used was many times more than you could ever get from a standard diet  - plus, it's not known how much the vitamin B-12 deficiency had to do with those results.

In other laboratory studies, rats fed large amounts of calcium propionate (and similar compounds) over longer periods of time did not appear to have any adverse outcomes. So the accumulation of research evidence indicates that calcium propionate is non-toxic and safe to use in the usual amounts currently used by food manufacturers.

The preponderance of research evidence has led to the US FDA Select Committee on GRAS Substances to conclude that:

There is no evidence in the available information on propionic acid, calcium propionate, and sodium propionate that demonstrates, or suggests reasonable grounds to suspect, a hazard to the public when they are used at levels that are now current or that might reasonably be expected in the future.

What Happens When You Eat It?

You don't store calcium propionate, so it doesn't build up in any of your body's cells. When your digestive system is busy breaking down all the foods you eat, it also splits the calcium apart from the propionic acid, which is readily absorbed and metabolized, just like any other fatty acid. Then your body eliminates it.

There are anecdotal claims that some people are sensitive to calcium propionate and may suffer from migraine headaches triggered by exposure to foods that contain the preservative.

But, currently, there isn't any medical research that backs that claim. That doesn't mean it isn't possible that calcium propionate causes headaches in some people, but it's tough to pinpoint things like that.

Do you think you may have an issue with calcium propionate? If so, then it's a good idea to speak with your healthcare provider. He or she can help you determine what's causing your health problem and talk to you about eating (or avoiding) foods that contain calcium propionate.

Sources:

The United States Food and Drug Administration. "Select Committee on GRAS Substances (SCOGS) Opinion: Calcium propionate; Dilauryl thiodipropionate; Propionic acid; Sodium propionate; Thiodipropionic acid."

Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety. "CHEMINFO: Calcium Propionate."

European Food Safety Authority. "Scientific Opinion on the re-evaluation of propionic acid (E 280), sodium propionate (E 281), calcium propionate (E 282) and potassium propionate (E 283) as food additives." 

Continue Reading