Chemical Food Preservatives

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OpenStax Microbiology

Chemical preservatives are used to inhibit microbial growth and minimize spoilage in some foods. Commonly used chemical preservatives include sorbic acid, benzoic acid, and propionic acid, and their more soluble salts potassium sorbate, sodium benzoate, and calcium propionate, all of which are used to control the growth of molds in acidic foods. Each of these preservatives is nontoxic and readily metabolized by humans. They are also flavorless, so they do not compromise the flavor of the foods they preserve.

Sorbic and benzoic acids exhibit increased efficacy as the pH decreases. Sorbic acid is thought to work by inhibiting various cellular enzymes, including those in the citric acid cycle, as well as catalases and peroxidases. It is added as a preservative in a wide variety of foods, including dairy, bread, fruit, and vegetable products. Benzoic acid is found naturally in many types of fruits and berries, spices, and fermented products. It is thought to work by decreasing intracellular pH, interfering with mechanisms such as oxidative phosphorylation and the uptake of molecules such as amino acids into cells. Foods preserved with benzoic acid or sodium benzoate include fruit juices, jams, ice creams,
pastries, soft drinks, chewing gum, and pickles.

Propionic acid is thought to both inhibit enzymes and decrease intracellular pH, working similarly to benzoic acid. However, propionic acid is a more effective preservative at a higher pH than either sorbic acid or benzoic acid. Propionic acid is naturally produced by some cheeses during their ripening and is added to other types of cheese and baked goods to prevent mold contamination. It is also added to raw dough to prevent contamination by the bacterium Bacillus mesentericus, which causes bread to become ropy.

Other commonly used chemical preservatives include sulfur dioxide and nitrites. Sulfur dioxide prevents browning of foods and is used for the preservation of dried fruits; it has been used in winemaking since ancient times. Sulfur dioxide gas dissolves in water readily, forming sulfites. Although sulfites can be metabolized by the body, some people have sulfite allergies, including asthmatic reactions. Additionally, sulfites degrade thiamine, an important nutrient in some foods. The mode of action of sulfites is not entirely clear, but they may interfere with the disulfide bond formation in proteins, inhibiting enzymatic activity. Alternatively, they may reduce the intracellular pH of the cell, interfering with proton motive force-driven mechanisms.

Nitrites are added to processed meats to maintain color and stop the germination of Clostridium botulinum endospores. Nitrites are reduced to nitric oxide, which reacts with heme groups and iron-sulfur groups. When nitric oxide reacts with the heme group within the myoglobin of meats, a red product forms, giving meat its red color.
Alternatively, it is thought that when nitric acid reacts with the iron-sulfur enzyme ferredoxin within bacteria, this electron transport-chain carrier is destroyed, preventing ATP synthesis. Nitrosamines, however, are carcinogenic and can be produced through exposure of nitrite-preserved meats (e.g., hot dogs, lunch meat, breakfast sausage, bacon,
meat in canned soups) to heat during cooking.


Parker, N., Schneegurt, M., Thi Tu, A.-H., Forster, B. M., & Lister, P. (n.d.). Microbiology. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at: