How do food preservatives work?

food preservatives
Food Safety & Quality

Habiba Ashraf

Technical officer at Bureau Veritas

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Food preservatives are substances that are added to food to inhibit or prevent the growth of microorganisms, such as bacteria, yeasts, and molds, as well as slow down the deterioration of food caused by enzymatic and chemical reactions.

They help extend the shelf life of food, maintain its quality, and prevent foodborne illnesses. The specific mechanisms of action of food preservatives can vary depending on the type of preservative used. Here are some common types of food preservatives and how they work:

food preservatives

1. Antimicrobial preservatives work by inhibiting the growth of microorganisms. They can disrupt the cellular processes of bacteria, yeast, and molds, preventing their growth and reproduction. Examples include:

  •  Organic acids (e.g., acetic acid, citric acid) organic acids create an acidic environment that inhibits microbial growth by disrupting the pH balance.
  •  Sodium benzoate and potassium sorbate these preservatives interfere with the metabolic processes of microorganisms, preventing their growth and survival.
  •  Nitrites and nitrates are preservatives commonly used in cured meats. They inhibit the growth of bacteria, particularly Clostridium botulinum, which can produce toxins that cause botulism.

2. Antioxidants help prevent or slow down the oxidation of fats and oils, which can lead to rancidity and off-flavors in food. They work by inhibiting or scavenging free radicals, which are highly reactive molecules that can initiate oxidation reactions. Examples include:

  •   Vitamin E (tocopherol) acts as a free radical scavenger, preventing oxidation in fats and oils.
  •   Ascorbic acid (vitamin C) can donate electrons to free radicals, neutralizing their reactivity and preventing oxidation.

3. Chelating agents are substances that bind to metal ions, such as iron and copper, which can catalyze oxidative reactions and promote the growth of certain microorganisms. By sequestering these metal ions, chelating agents prevent their involvement in chemical reactions that could lead to food spoilage. Examples include:

  •   EDTA (ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid) forms stable complexes with metal ions, preventing their participation in oxidation reactions.
  •   Citric acid can bind to metal ions, inhibiting their reactivity and preventing oxidation.

It’s important to note that the use of food preservatives is regulated by food safety authorities to ensure their safety and to establish acceptable usage levels in different food products. The specific preservatives used and their concentrations depend on the type of food, intended shelf life, and regulatory guidelines.


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