Natural food preservation using antimicrobial peptides for improved food safety and sustainability

natural preservation
Food Safety & Quality

Christian Anumudu

Food/Industrial Microbiologist

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Natural food preservation using antimicrobial peptides for improved food safety and sustainability.

Food safety and sustainability is a topical issue that humans over the years have dealt with and will continue to deal with. Food sustainability refers to the production and consumption of food in a manner that is efficient, does not negatively affect the environment while enhancing the quality of life of the food producers, be it humans or animals (Garnett, 2013). Throughout the world, an estimated 10% of the global population suffers from food inadequacy, especially in developing regions. However, enough food is produced globally to feed every human and animal on the planet, and most of it is wasted due to inadequate preservation and ineffective food chain systems. Thus, at the heart of food sustainability is food preservation. This is because, although there is global hunger, food inadequacy, or insufficiency, it is estimated by the United Nations that 13% of all foods produced globally is wasted, spoilt, or lost between harvest and retail, while another 17% is wasted in households, in the shops and the food service industry. Similarly, food wastage accounts for more than 38% of total energy usage within the global food system, which is not sustainable. If we reduce this food wastage, we not only ensure that there is enough food to feed the world population, reduce hunger, and meet the economic needs of food producers, especially in the least developed regions of the world but significantly reduce the total energy usage of the global food chain system, thus ensuring a greener world (Garnett, 2011.

To ensure food sustainability and reduced waste, it is imperative that effective approaches for food preservation and the reduction of pre-harvest, processing, post-harvest, and retail waste are instituted more rigorously globally (Gunasekera et al., 2017, OFORI, 2022). Simply put, effective food preservation is at the heart of ensuring food availability and sustainability. In addition to these, food preservation plays an important role in ensuring food safety. The food we eat must be safe, nutritious and free from contaminants. The safety risks associated with food range from physical such as stones, bottles, metals and other hazards in foods to chemical contaminants such as pesticides, and heavy metal residues, to biological risks, such as pests and microbial contaminants, including algae, bacteria and fungi. Similarly, the metabolites of these organisms, including from algae such as brevetoxins, mycotoxins from fungi such as fumonisins and aflatoxins and other bacteria endo and exotoxins such as botulinum toxins pose a huge threat to food safety. These risks are very serious, not only rendering food unsuitable for consumption but also a serious risk to the health of consumers, possibly leading to death if contaminated food is consumed inadvertently (Aytac and Taban, 2014).

Current food preservation approaches revolve around using chill chains to preserve food quality and chemical preservatives to reduce microbial proliferation in foods (Bondi et al., 2014). Despite these, microbial spoilage accounts for more than 25% of spoilage in all produced foods globally and results in about 600 million cases of foodborne diseases and 420,000 deaths annually. Children bear the brunt of this as they are the demographics most affected. The WHO estimates that yearly, more than 125,000 deaths occur in children less than 5 years of age due to the presence of microorganisms in food. Thus, the question arises: if current practices for food preservation to ensure microbial food safety, sustainability, and waste reduction are ineffective, what are the alternative approaches that can be employed?

There are no clear-cut answers to this question. Because of the sheer scale of the food chain system, the speed of production and transport, and the wide array of foods produced trans-nationally, a combination of approaches will continue to be used, including cold storage and management. However, the chemical preservatives such as benzoic acids, sorbates, nitrites, and sulfites which are currently being used for food preservation, have proven to be inadequate, with limitations for use within foods (Dwivedi et al., 2017). They have also been known to negatively impact the organoleptic quality of foods or have adverse side effects on consumers when over-used or misused, including cancer, reduced hemoglobin concentration, and allergies (Dey and Nagababu, 2022).

Antimicrobial peptides, also known as bioactive peptides, are short peptide sequences secreted by a wide range of organisms, including bacteria, insects, amphibians, plants, etc, with activity against other organisms. Many bacteria are able to produce bacteriocins; however, the most common and active bacteriocins are usually secreted by lactic acid bacteria (LAB) (Darbandi et al., 2022). The use of antimicrobial peptides in food preservation is a growing trend, and these bioactive peptides are a veritable alternative to chemical preservatives. They have a number of marked advantages over chemical preservatives, including their peptide nature, which makes them easy to break down by stomach acids following consumption, thus reducing their presence in the body and preventing any chances of resistance development by microorganisms (Bogovič-Matijašić and Rogelj, 2011). Furthermore, they are considered to be natural and with the growing inclination to consume more natural products and additives in food, they are indeed the future of food additives and preservatives. Importantly, most bacteriocins have a wide spectrum of activity and are able to inhibit the growth of microbial genera closely related and even unrelated to the bacteriocin producer organism, thus making them an ideal candidate for food preservation as food contamination can be from diverse microbial genera (Acuña et al., 2011, Shelburne et al., 2007). The use of bacteriocins as antimicrobial agents in foods presents an opportunity for a wide array of applications. They can be utilized as food additives, either in their crude or purified forms, by incorporating fermentates from bacteriocin-producing strains directly into foods. Additionally, they can be employed in active food packaging, such as coating packaging materials with bacteriocins to ensure a slow release of the peptide into the food over a longer period of time to extend food shelf life (Anumudu et al., 2022). Several bacteriocins, including subtilin, cerein, thuricin, and plantaricin, have been thoroughly characterized and purified for commercial testing. However, nisin remains the most widely utilized. Nisin produced by the bacteria Lactococcus lactis (Meade et al., 2020) is generally recognized as safe (GRAS) and finds application as a natural preservative in foods of various origins.

Important to food safety, sustainability, and waste reduction is that bacteriocins and other antimicrobial peptides have potent antimicrobial activity against a wide range of pathogenic and spoilage-causing microorganisms in foods, and unlike the chemical preservatives, they offer a more natural and targeted approach for the inhibition of unwanted bacteria, thus ensuring food safety and food shelf-life elongation (O’Connor et al., 2015) which are important for the assurance of food security and sustainable consumption. Similarly, the bacteriocins are stable, maintaining their antimicrobial activity under various environmental conditions. They remain active at extreme pH, salinity, and solute concentrations. Similarly, they are potent at freezing and boiling temperatures (Soltani et al., 2022). Thus, they can withstand the different treatments foods receive and remain active in most food matrixes and when incorporated into packaging materials.


Although some challenges are still present that limit the widespread use of bacteriocins in food preservation, such as a more economical means for their widespread production, there is a promise that these antimicrobial peptides are the future of food preservation. As naturally occurring peptides that can be produced through fermentation and green processing technologies, bacteriocins are perceived as safe and environmentally friendly alternatives to chemical preservatives, appealing to health-conscious consumers who prioritize natural and sustainable food options. Other salient features, such as their remarkable stability and preservation of the sensory attributes of foods and ability to selectively target spoilage organisms, make them the ideal food preservatives of the future. In conclusion, the use of bacteriocins in food preservation presents a promising opportunity to ensure microbial food safety and extend the shelf life of foods while preserving nutritional and organoleptic qualities. With continual advances in bacteriocin research, the incorporation of bacteriocins into food preservation practices can potentially revolutionize the food industry by offering safer, healthier, and more sustainable alternatives to traditional preservatives, paving the way for the development of novel food products that meet the evolving needs and preferences of consumers while ensuring global food safety, sustainability and security for future generations.



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Further Reading

Advanced Storage Practices for Optimal Transportation of Produce

Home Food Preservation

Beneficial Microbes in Food Preservation


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