Natural alternatives to chemical food preservatives: Plant-based is the new trend

Natural alternatives to chemical food preservatives: Plant-based is the new trend

By Vasambal Manikkam

Artificial food preservatives revolutionized the food industry to ensure a longer shelf-life of food products. This has facilitated the widespread distribution and mass production of food as well as opened up new markets.

Beyond shelf-life extension, preservatives have additional roles in food production. For example, processed and refined food products require the application of preservatives to inhibit natural ageing and discoloration. In addition, some preservatives also serve rheological purposes; they act as emulsifiers, stabilizers and thickeners to give foods their desirable texture and consistency.

From a health perspective, artificial preservatives have been criticized for their various side effects, including gut diseases and obesity.  However, replacement of preservatives is far from a simple process. There are numerous factors to consider in the processing of shelf-stable food products.

Challenges faced in processing shelf-stable food products:

During food manufacturing, there are many chemical and microbial interactions that take place within the food system. These interactions include temperature, water activity, pH, competitive flora, preservatives, and Maillard reaction, amongst others. The overall aim is to effectively preserve food products and improve their shelf life. Therefore, by using an intelligent mix of additives, it is possible to improve not only the microbial stability and safety, but also the sensory and nutritional quality of a food product.

  • For example, if we look at salami-type fermented sausages: Salt is added during the ripening process to inhibit many of the bacteria present. The challenge here is that salt causes the color of the meat to change. So, preservatives, such as nitrites, are added to retain color of the end product.

Let’s have a look at what is currently trending on the global market in the area of natural food preservatives.   

Plant-derived food preservatives is the new trend:

In the early days, some of the natural preservatives, such as citrus fruit juices, salt, sugar and vinegar, were traditionally used to preserve food. With the evolutionary changes, the food industry has been looking at using plants and their extracts as potential means to food preservation. Here are 5 potential clean-label, plant-derived alternatives to some chemical preservatives. 

Alternative #1: Australian Kakadu plum

In Australia, making good use of the motherland is very crucial to the indigenous tribes. Edible fruits such as the Kakadu plum is making way into the seafood industry. Kakadu plums can improve shelf life and help retain the color of shrimp.

Australian researchers demonstrated that Kakadu plum has produced a shelf life of up to 21 days; representing a whole week longer than the standard. Additionally, Kakadu plum which is recognized as an Australian super food, is known to contain the highest amount of vitamin C compared with any other food on earth. Statistics indicate that 100 grams of Kakadu plum can contain from 1000 to 5300 mg of vitamin C; that’s about 100 times greater than the vitamin C concentration of blueberries and oranges! This is great as consumers are benefiting from both the antioxidative and preservative effect of such nutritious fruits.

Alternative #2: Rosemary plants

Plants are traditionally known for their defensive mechanisms against fungal and bacterial attacks. As a replacement of synthetic antioxidants (such as E320), studies are demonstrating the potential of plant extracts, such as rosemary, to act as free radical scavengers and prevent oil and fats from going rancid. Two major bioactive components, namely rosmarinic and carnosic acid, are associated with free-radical chain reaction inhibition.

  • In 2010, rosemary extracts obtained final EU approval for food preservation. Naturex is one of the leading companies making the shift and has already started using this natural preservative to preserve meat products.

As mentioned by the category manager for natural antioxidants, Catherine Bayard, from Naturex:

The tide is turning against artificial ingredients and this is a trend the meat industry is now unable to ignore. Rosemary extracts hold strong potential here.

Alternative #3: Moringa oleifera

Popular in various parts of the world, such as the Philippines, Pakistan, India, Hawaii and Africa, Moringa oleifera, has become well-known for its medicinal purposes. Recently, early-stage scientific research studies have been looking into the potential of this plant’s extract to be used as a food preservative. From a nutritional point of view, there is an enhancement of nutritional and organoleptic attributes of various livestock foods due to the biologically active ingredients derived from the plant.

Alternative #4: Naturally occurring parabens

Plants known for their naturally occurring parabens include blueberries, blackcurrants, mango, cocoa beans, vanilla, and strawberries. In fact, according to Anthony Dweck’s paraben compendium, 4-hydroxybenzoic acid forms the basis of parabens. Thus, it is the most widely distributed aromatic organic acid amongst the plant kingdom. Studies are yet to be conducted to determine their applicability in food products, but they sound promising, owing to the antibacterial and antioxidative characteristics of these natural foods.

Alternative #5: Verdad F32

Corbion Purac developed a replacement to sorbates and benzoates. At FIE 2017, the Verdad range was presented as a potential antimicrobial agent that is capable to preserve fresh foods, mainly salads, at their best for longer while also naturally enhancing the product’s flavor profile. The formulation, which is non-genetically modified, non-allergen and gluten free is known as Verdad F32. It constitutes a mixture of beet and cane sugar, corn and tapioca, which goes through multi-step procedures of fermentation, crystallization and filtration.


Michael Matthews, Business President, Food Protection & Fermentation at Kerry told FoodIngredientsFirst:

Consumers are looking for safe food with natural ingredients and great taste. They are asking for ingredients they can understand, simple labeling, balanced nutrition panels, and trustworthy sourcing.”

In terms of health claims, consumers are also demanding a ‘clean label’ product, meaning no additives and/or preservatives, which is seeing strong growth within the food sector.

To sum up, there is great potential that plants and their extracts be used as effective naturally occurring food preservatives that perform similar functions as their chemical counterparts.

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