Acetic acid and its salts are chemical compounds that have been widely used in various industries due to their preservative and antimicrobial properties. However, their use has also been the subject of debate due to their effects on health and the environment, besides the fact that consumer trends point to the use of more natural and clean label alternatives, and less chemical preservatives and additives. In this blog post we will explore the role of acetic acid in the industry and the promising alternatives for improving its efficacy against spoilage microorganisms.

What is acetic acid?

Acetic acid is an organic acid commonly found in vinegar and other natural sources, or it can also be chemically synthesized. It has been used for centuries for food preservation and as an antimicrobial agent due to its ability to inhibit the growth of microorganisms. In addition to this general microbiological control, it is especially effective against enterobacteria, a group of Gram-negative bacteria that can be found on various surfaces and foods. This kind of bacteria are one of the most complicated for the food industry, since some of them are pathogenic, such as Salmonella and E. coli, and can cause diseases of special relevance to humans derived from consuming food contaminated with them. Despite this specific activity, acetic acid usually requires synergies with other preservatives of different origins to control their appearance.

Acetic acid is so widely used in the industry that it has an E number, E-260. Also all its salts are additives, such as sodium diacetate for example with E number E-262ii.

Does the use of acetic acid affect the organoleptic characteristics of the food?

The application of acetic acid or its salts not only has an impact on food preservation but also has a significant effect on the organoleptic characteristics of food products.

Acetic acid is responsible for providing a sour and acid taste, which when used in high concentrations or in foods with very neutral flavour, it can be enhanced against the other flavours present in the food. As with aroma, in products where it is not a desired attribute or where the integrity of the natural aroma of the ingredients is required to not change, the excessive use of acetic acid can have a negative effect.

It can also have an effect on food texture. In products where the original texture is aimed to be preserved or which require a certain firmness, its excessive use can denature proteins and negatively affect the desired texture.

These are the reasons why acetic acid is used together with other preservatives to achieve efficacy and to avoid over-flavouring. Among these synergistic strategies we find protective fermentation: the use of protective ferments in a food at standard dosages plays no role in flavour, texture or aroma. It is therefore common for the industry to use the synergy between acetic acid and these kind of ferments to achieve a preservative function while not influencing the organoleptic characteristics of any final food in which it is needed.

The picture shows a couple eating and toasting. Image from Freepik

What other synergistic mechanisms to acetic acid are alternatives for the industry?

The extensive use of acetic acid and its salts can raise some challenges and concerns, such as the development of antimicrobial resistance in enterobacteria and other bacteria present in food, or that its excessive use can alter the desired sensory profile in certain products. As we become more aware of their limitations, the food industry has sought for safer and more sustainable alternatives for the control of enterobacteria. Some of these alternatives include natural antimicrobial compounds such as plant extracts and essential oils; physical methods such as the application of high temperatures and high pressure treatments; or innovations in packaging through the development of intelligent and active packaging; also, a new line of research is the use of bacteriophages.

Clearly the best synergistic mechanism to additives in general -and to acetic acid or its salts in particular- is the use of protective fermentation solutions which, besides having a strong antimicrobial activity against a wide variety of spoilage or pathogenic microorganisms, they also have the advantage of being organoleptically neutral so that they do not change the flavour and aroma of the final food.

What is protective fermentation and how is it combined with acetic acid?

Protective fermentation is a technology based on the use of beneficial microorganisms to protect foods against the proliferation of undesirable microorganisms. This protective fermentation combines with acetic acid to enhance the antimicrobial activity that helps inhibit the growth of undesirable bacteria, resulting in an extension of the shelf-life of the food increasing the guarantees of safety. Therefore this combination provides a much more effective double barrier protection than when used alone, improving the overall effectiveness of microbiological control.

Where can you find these protective fermentation alternatives that acetic acid needs to achieve such effectiveness?

The combination of technologies in the food industry has become an innovative and effective strategy to improve product safety and quality. We have already mentioned that acetic acid has historically been widely used as a preservative and antimicrobial agent to control the proliferation of microorganisms. However, it has also become clear that to be fully effective, it requires techniques such as protective fermentation to achieve greater food protection.

At Amerex we develop products based on the synergy of acetic acid with protective fermentation, such as Fermitrat Fs which represents an outstanding example of this highly effective combination. This solution uses a combination of microorganism strains together with acetic acid technology to maximize food protection against Gram-negative bacteria such as enterobacteria in general, as well as pathogenic microorganisms such as Salmonella and E. coli, which are a common concern in the food industry due to the risks associated with food safety and product quality.

Fermitrat Fs acts synergistically with acetic acid, enhancing its antimicrobial properties, without negatively altering the flavour, aroma or texture of the food since the protective fermentation solutions have the advantage of being neutral in all these sensory characteristics. Due to its synergic action with acetic acid, it also allows the dosages used of this additive to be lower and not alter the organoleptic characteristics of the final product, unlike if it was used alone at higher doses.

At Amerex, we will be happy to discuss with you options such as Fermitrat Fs or other protective fermentation alternatives that complement the use of acetic acid and maximize the effectiveness of microbiological controls. Our team of experts will advise you on these customized solutions for your specific needs in the food industry to improve the safety, quality and shelf-life of your food products.

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