Food companies don't have to resort to chemistry lab concoctions for food preservation. According to a third-party watchdog group, the Environmental Working Group, there are now 10,000 or more additives allowed in food. While some additives are more dangerous than others, including carcinogenic meat preservatives like sodium nitrates and nitrites, there really may be no need for most of these ingredients.
In fact, essential plant oils are on their way to revolutionizing food preservation. With essential oils, food preservation can be kept simple and non-toxic, and can actually benefit one's health. The oil's antibacterial properties can keep foods contaminant-free and boost the body's antimicrobial defense system. The antioxidant properties of some essential oils can give foods a longer shelf life while providing anti-aging properties to the consumer.
Let's take a look at some different essential oils that could play a huge role in future food preservation.
Carvacrol (Oregano and Thyme)
Carvacrol is the broad-spectrum antimicrobial agent extracted from oregano and thyme. Nearly half of thyme (45 percent) is made up of carvacrol, and up to 74 percent of oregano is made up of it. Science shows that carvacrol releases lipopolysaccharides, obliterating the outer membrane of gram-negative bacteria. It's also an effective weapon against gram-positive bacteria, manipulating bacteria membranes by altering the permeability for H+ and K+ cations. This leads to bacteria cell death. The success of carvacrol lies in the presence of a hydroxyl group in the structure of its phenolic compounds.
Carvacrol is also a powerful antioxidant. By preventing free radical scavengers, carvacrol can keep food from spoiling. It also terminates peroxides, prevents hydrogen abstractions and destroys singlet oxygen formation in a way that can be used to prevent lipid oxidation in entire food systems.
The properties of Rosmarinus officinalis (rosemary) essential oil scientifically take out gram-positive (Staphylococcus aureus and Bacillus subtilis) and gram-negative (Escherichia coli and Klebsiella pneumoniae) bacteria. Rosemary contains a plethora of monoterpenes which disrupt the integrity of bacteria cell membranes. These plant powers include alpha-pinene, beta-pinene, myrcene 1,8-cineole, borneol, camphor and verbinone.
Clove essential oil is a rich source of phenolics. These organic compounds contain one carbon atom attached directly to a hydroxyl group (-OH). This aromatic ring shares the hydrogen atom with free radicals, halting the oxidation of other compounds. In scientific studies, clove's phenolic properties showed high scavenging activity of the destructive DPPH radical. Clove essential oil also tested for high ferric reducing power, with the ability to quench singlet oxygen molecules and chelate metals. Turmeric, plai and ginger root essential oils also exhibit free radical scavenging activity.
Improving the matrix of food packaging to repel moisture
Adding these essential oils to foods may change the smell of those foods, since many of these phytochemicals are aromatic. Adding them to food packaging may be a more practical approach for the more aromatic compounds. By utilizing the technology of smart packaging, essential oils can be strategically worked into packaging to increase the oil's activity. Essential oils can be added to packaging in ways that improve water vapor barrier properties of protein-based films. For example, when essential oils of ginger, plai and turmeric are added to fish- and gelatin-based films, water permeability is decreased drastically, protecting the food product from spoilage. By adding the essential oil to the matrix of the food packaging, moisture can be repelled, thus extending the shelf life of the product.
Essential oils are the answer for food preservation. Simple combinations of these phytochemicals could potentially replace hundreds of food additives and toxic preservatives. Their antimicrobial and antioxidant properties destroy the cell membranes of bacteria. By combining these essentials into the structure of food packaging, moisture can be repelled, reducing spoilage of food across the board.