5.3 Chemical preservation

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Many chemicals will kill micro-organisms or stop their growth but most of these are not permitted in foods; chemicals that are permitted as food preservatives are listed in Table 5.3.1. Chemical food preservatives are those substances which are added in very low quantities (up to 0.2%) and which do not alter the organoleptic and physico-chemical properties of the foods at or only very little.

Preservation of food products containing chemical food preservatives is usually based on the combined or synergistic activity of several additives, intrinsic product parameters (e.g. composition, acidity, water activity) and extrinsic factors (e.g. processing temperature, storage atmosphere and temperature).

This approach minimises undesirable changes in product properties and reduces concentration of additives and extent of processing treatments.

The concept of combinations of preservatives and treatments to preserve foods is frequently called the hurdle or barrier concept. Combinations of additives and preservatives systems provide unlimited preservation alternatives for applications in food products to meet consumer demands for healthy and safe foods.

Chemical food preservatives are applied to foods as direct additives during processing, or develop by themselves during processes such as fermentation. Certain preservatives have been used either accidentally or intentionally for centuries, and include sodium chloride (common salt), sugar, acids, alcohols and components of smoke. In addition to preservation, these compounds contribute to the quality and identity of the products, and are applied through processing procedures such as salting, curing, fermentation and smoking.


5.3.1 Traditional chemical food preservatives and their use in fruit and vegetable processing technologies could be summarised as follows: common salt: brined vegetables; sugars (sucrose, glucose, fructose and syrups): foods preserved by high sugar concentrations: jellies, preserves, syrups, juice concentrates; interaction of sugar with other ingredients or processes such as drying and heating; indirect food preservation by sugar in products where fermentation is important (naturally acidified pickles and sauerkraut).


5.3.2 Acidulants and other preservatives formed in or added to fruit and vegetable products are as follows: Lactic acid. This acid is the main product of many food fermentations; it is formed by microbial degradation of sugars in products such as sauerkraut and pickles. The acid produced in such fermentations decreases the pH to levels unfavourable for growth of spoilage organisms such as putrefactive anaerobes and butyric-acid-producing bacteria. Yeasts and moulds that can grow at such pH levels can be controlled by the inclusion of other preservatives such as sorbate and benzoate. Acetic acid. Acetic acid is a general preservative inhibiting many species of bacteria, yeasts and to a lesser extent moulds. It is also a product of the lactic-acid fermentation, and its preservative action even at identical pH levels is greater than that of lactic acid. The main applications of vinegar (acetic acid) includes products such as pickles, sauces and ketchup. Other acidulants


5.3.3 Commonly used lipophilic acid food preservatives Benzoic acid in the form of its sodium salt, constitutes one of the most common chemical food preservative. Sodium benzoate is a common preservative in acid or acidified foods such as fruit juices, syrups, jams and jellies, sauerkraut, pickles, preserves, fruit cocktails, etc. Yeasts are inhibited by benzoate to a greater extent than are moulds and bacteria. Sorbic acid is generally considered non toxic and is metabolised; among other common food preservatives the WHO has set the highest acceptable daily intake (25 mg/kg body weight) for sorbic acid.

Sorbic acid and its salts are practically tasteless and odourless in foods, when used at reasonable levels (< 0.3 %) and their antimicrobial activity is generally adequate.

Sorbates are used for mould and yeast inhibition in a variety of foods including fruits and vegetables, fruit juices, pickles, sauerkraut, syrups, jellies, jams, preserves, high moisture dehydrated fruits, etc.

Potassium sorbate, a white, fluffy powder, is very soluble in water (over 50%) and when added to acid foods it is hydrolysed to the acid form. Sodium and calcium sorbates also have preservative activities but their application is limited compared to that for the potassium salt, which is employed because of its stability, general ease of preparation and water solubility.


5.3.4 Gaseous chemical food preservatives Sulphur dioxide and sulphites. Sulphur dioxide (SO2) has been used for many centuries as a fumigant and especially as a wine preservative. It is a colourless, suffocating, pungent-smelling, non-flammable gas and is very soluble in cold water (85 g in 100 ml at 25C).

Sulphur dioxide and its various sulphites dissolve in water, and at low pH levels yield sulphurous acid, bisulphite and sulphite ions. The various sulphite salts contain 50-68% active sulphur dioxide. A pH dependent equilibrium is formed in water and the proportion of SO2 ions increases with decreasing pH values. At pH values less than 4.0 the antimicrobial activity reaches its maximum.

Sulphur dioxide is used as a gas or in the form of its sulphite, bisulphite and metabisulphite salts which are powders. The gaseous form is produced either by burning Sulphur or by its release from the compressed liquefied form.

Metabisulphite are more stable to oxidation than bisulphites, which in turn show greater stability than sulphites.

The antimicrobial action of sulphur dioxide against yeasts, moulds and bacteria is selective, with some species being more resistant than others.

Sulphur dioxide and sulphites are used in the preservation of a variety of food products. In addition to wines these include dehydrated/dried fruits and vegetables, fruit juices, acid pickles, syrups, semi-processed fruit products, etc. In addition to its antimicrobial effects, sulphur dioxide is added to foods for its antioxidant and reducing properties, and to prevent enzymatic and non-enzymatic browning reactions. Carbon dioxide (CO2) is a colourless, odourless, non-combustible gas, acidic in odour and flavour. In commercial practice it is sold as a liquid under pressure (58 kg per cm) or solidified as dry ice.

Carbon dioxide is used as a solid (dry ice) in many countries as a means of low-temperature storage and transportation of food products. Beside keeping the temperature low, as it sublimes, the gaseous CO2 inhibits growth of psychrotrophic micro-organisms and prevents spoilage of the food (fruits and vegetables, etc.).

Carbon dioxide is used as a direct additive in the storage of fruits and vegetables. In the controlled/ modified environment storage of fruit and vegetables, the correct combination of O2 and CO2 delays respiration and ripening as well as retarding mould and yeast growth.

The final result is an extended storage of the products for transportation and for consumption during the off-season. The amount of CO2 (5-10%) is determined by factors such as nature of product, variety, climate and extent of storage. Chlorine. The various forms of chlorine constitute the most widely used chemical sanitiser in the food industry. These chlorine forms include chlorine (Cl2), sodium hypochlorite (NaOCl), calcium hypochlorite (Ca(OCl)2) and chlorine dioxide gas (ClO2).

These compounds are used as water adjuncts in processes such as product washing, transport, and cooling of heat-sterilised cans; in sanitising solutions for equipment surfaces, etc.

Important applications of chlorine and its compounds include disinfection of drinking water and sanitation of food processing equipment.


5.3.5 General rules for chemical preservation Chemical food preservatives have to be used only at a dosage level which is needed for a normal preservation and not more. "Reconditioning" of chemical preserved food, e.g. a new addition of preservative in order to stop a microbiological deterioration already occurred is not recommended. The use of chemical preservatives MUST be strictly limited to those substances which are recognised as being without harmful effects on human beings' health and are accepted by national and international standards and legislation.


5.3.6 Factors which determine/ influence the action of chemical food preservatives Factors related to the chemical preservatives:

  1. chemical composition;
  2. concentration. Factors related to micro-organisms:

a) micro-organism species; as a general rule it is possible to take the following facts as a basis:

b) the initial number of micro-organisms in the treated product determines the efficiency of the chemical preservative.

The efficiency is less if the product has been contaminated because of preliminary careless hygienic treatment or an incipient alteration. Therefore, with a low initial number of micro-organisms in the product, the preservative dosage level could be reduced. Specific factors related to the product to be preserved:

  1. product chemical composition;
  2. influence of the pH value of the product: the efficiency of the majority of chemical preservatives is higher at lower pH values, i.e. when the medium is more acidic.
  3. physical presentation and size which the product is sliced to: the chemical preservative's dispersion in food has an impact on its absorption and diffusion through cell membranes on micro-organisms and this determines the preservation effect.

Therefore, the smaller the slicing of the product, the higher the preservative action. Preservative dispersion is slowed down by viscous foods (concentrated fruit juices, etc.) Miscellaneous factors

  1. Temperature: chemical preservative dosage level will be established as a function of product temperature and characteristics of the micro-flora;
  2. Time: at preservative dosage levels in employed in industrial practice, the time period needed in order to obtain a "chemical sterilisation" is a few weeks for benzoic acid and shorter for sulphurous acid.

Usual accepted chemical food preservatives are detailed in Table 5.3.1.

TABLE 5.3.1 Chemical Food Preservatives

Agent Acceptable Daily intake (mg/Kg body weight) Commonly used levels (%)
Lactic acid No limit No limit
Citric acid No limit No limit
Acetic acid No limit No limit
Sodium Diacetate 15 0.3-0.5
Sodium benzoate 5 0.03-0.2
Sodium propionate 10 0.1-0.3
Potassium sorbate 25 0.05-0.2
Methyl paraben 10 0.05-0.1
Sodium nitrite 0.2 0.01-0.02
Sulphur dioxide 0.7 0.005-0.2

Source: FDA, 1991

For the purpose of this document, some food products in common usage are summarised as follows:

Citric acid: fruit juices; jams; other sugar preserves;

Acetic acid: vegetable pickles; other vegetable products;

Sodium benzoate: vegetable pickles; preserves; jams; jellies; semi-processed products;

Sodium propionate: fruits; vegetables;

Potassium sorbate: fruits; vegetables; pickled products; jams, jellies;

Methyl paraben: fruit products; pickles; preserves;

Sulphur dioxide: fruit juices; dried / dehydrated fruits and vegetables; semi-processed products.

5.4 Preservation of vegetables by acidification

Food acidification is a means of preventing their deterioration in so far as a non-favourable medium for micro-organisms development is created. This acidification can be obtained by two ways: natural acidification and artificial acidification.

5.4.1 Natural acidification.

This is achieved by a predominant lactic fermentation which assures the preservation based on acidoceno-anabiosys principle; preservation by lactic fermentation is called also biochemical preservation.

Throughout recorded history food has been preserved by fermentation. In spite of the introduction of modern preservation methods, lactic acid fermented vegetables still enjoy a great popularity, mainly because of their nutritional and gastronomic qualities.

The various preservation methods discussed thus far, based on the application of heat, removal of water, cold and other principles, all have the common objective of decreasing the number of living organisms in foods or at least holding them in check against further multiplication.

Fermentation processes for preservation purposes, in contrast, encourage the multiplication of micro-organisms and their metabolic activities in foods. But the organisms that are encouraged are from a select group and their metabolic activities and end products are highly desirable. The extent of this desirability is emphasised by a partial list of fermented fruits and vegetable products from various parts of the world in Table 5.4.1.

There are some characteristic features in the production of fermented vegetables which will be pointed out below using cucumbers as an example. In the production of lactic acid fermented cucumbers, the raw material is put into a brine without previous heating. Through the effect of salt and oxygen deficiency the cucumber tissues gradually die. At the same time, the semi-permeability of the cell membranes is lost, whereby soluble cell components diffuse into the brine and serve as food substrate for the micro-organisms.

Under such specific conditions of the brine the lactic acid bacteria succeed in overcoming the accompanying micro-organisms and lactic acid as the main metabolic products is formed. Under favourable conditions (for example moderate salt in the brine, use of starter cultures) it takes at least 3 days until the critical pH value of 4.1 or less - desired for microbiological reasons - is reached.

Beside the typical taste, for the consumer a crisp texture is the most important quality criterion for fermented vegetables. Fig. 5.4.1 shows the factors which can influence the texture, where the enzymes are particularly important.

Because there is no heating step before the fermentation, the indigenous plant enzymes in the fermenting materials are still present during the very first phase. After the destruction of the cell membranes they easily get to their active sites and under favourable conditions they can easily cause softening.

The environmental conditions act in a different manner on single enzymes or enzymes systems: some enzymes are strongly inhibited by salt, others are activated, and in the acid pH-region many enzymes are irreversibly inactivated. Beside indigenous enzymes also enzymes produced by micro-organisms can be responsible for the undesired soft products.

Figure 5.4.6 Factors influencing the texture of fermented vegetables (Source: P. Meurer, 1992).

In technically advanced societies the major importance of fermented foods has come to be variety they add to the diet. However, in many less developed areas of the world, fermentation and natural drying are the major food preservation methods and as such are vital to survival of a large proportion of the world's current population.

5.4.2 Artificial acidification is carried out by adding acetic acid which is the only organic acid harmless for human health and stable in specific working conditions; in this case biological principles of the preservation are acidoanabiosys and, to a lesser extent, acidoabiosys.

5.4.3 Combined acidification is a preservation technology which involves as a preliminary processing step a weak lactic fermentation followed by acidification (vinegar addition).

The two main classes of vegetables preserved by acidification are sauerkraut and pickles; the definitions of these products adapted from US Code of Federal Register (7 CFR 52, 1991) are as follows.

Bulk sauerkraut. Bulk or barrelled sauerkraut is the product of characteristic acid flavour, obtained by the full fermentation, chiefly lactic, of properly prepared and shredded cabbage in the presence of 2-3% salt. On completion of fermentation, it contains not more than 1.5% of acid, expressed as lactic acid.

Canned sauerkraut. Canned (or packaged) sauerkraut, is prepared from clean, sound, well-matured heads of the cabbage plant (Brassica oleracea var. capitata L.) which have been properly trimmed and cut; to which salt is added and which is cured by natural fermentation.

The product may or may not be packed with pickled peppers, pimientos, or tomatoes or contain other flavouring ingredients to give the product specific flavour characteristics. The product

a) may be canned by processing sufficiently by heat to assure preservation in hermetically sealed containers; or

b) may be packaged in sealed containers and preserved with or without the addition of benzoate of soda or any other ingredient permissible under the provisions of Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Pickles. "Pickles" means the product prepared entirely or predominantly from cucumbers (Cucumis sativus L.). Clean, sound ingredients are used which may or may not have been previously subjected to fermentation and curing in a salt brine (solution of sodium chloride, NaCl).

The prepared pickles are packed in a vinegar solution to which may be added salt and other vegetables, nutritive sweeteners, seasonings, flavourings, spices, and other ingredients permissible under FDA regulations. The product is packed in suitable containers and heat treated, or otherwise processed to assure preservation.

Sauerkraut and pickle products can be preserved under the effect of natural or added acidity, followed by pasteurization when this acidification is not sufficient.

Sauerkraut is a very good source of vitamin C; the importance of this product should be emphasised in developing countries as a simple technology which can be applied mainly for consumption of the finished products in remote, isolated areas during the cold season. It is also a excellent technology to be learned to schools which have their own source of cabbage and cucumbers through school agricultural farms.

Sauerkraut and pickles are manufactured on an industrial scale in significant quantities world-wide. However, the basic technology is simple and could be applied at home, farm and community level after some explanation and training. The natural acidification preservation could be considered similar to sun/solar drying in terms of training and development.

TABLE 5.4.1 Some industrial fermentation processes in food industries

I. Lactic acid bacteria  
- cucumbers dill pickles, sour pickles
- cabbage sauerkraut
- turnips sauerruben
- lettuce lettuce kraut
- mixed vegetables, turnips, radish, cabbage  
- mixed Chinese vegetables,  
cabbage Kimchi
- vegetables and milk Tarhana
- vegetables and rice Sajur asin
II. Lactic acid bacteria with other micro-organisms  
- with yeasts Nukamiso pickles
- with moulds tempeh, soy sauce
III. Acetic acid bacteria - wine, cider or any alcoholic and sugary or starchy products may be converted to vinegar  
IV. Yeasts  
- fruit wine, vermouth

Source: Pederson (1)

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