Many food manufacturers, optimize the shelf life of their product through the use of preservatives, of which there are very many different types. Clearly, the choice of preservative used is going to have an impact on a facility's HACCP plan and also on the distribution of the product being manufactured. This is where a scientific approach to plant contamination really shows its power. Once the contaminant load in a plant has been analyzed, along with contaminants routine testing found in finished product, it becomes possible to scientifically determine (through such testing) the best preservative for that product.
The most common preservative combination seems to be the combination of potassium sorbate and sodium benzoate. This combination, however, may not be the best choice for your product. Potassium sorbate has a reasonable taste and even adds a bit of sweetness. Sodium benzoate, however, has a thoroughly lousy flavor. Various flavor houses offer special flavorings they claim are able to mask the wretched flavor of sodium benzoate but it seems to be a matter of opinion whether there exists any masking agent for sodium benzoate that actually lives up to its promise.
There is also another, more serious, problem. Sodium benzoate is itself not all that well preserved in all cases. In the presence of vitamin C and heat (as might be found in a pasteurization step of an acid food), sodium benzoate is known to decompose to carbon dioxide and benzene. The probable human LD50 of benzene may be as low as 50 mg/kg (50 ppm - oral administration). Benzene is therefore quite toxic. Benzene is also a confirmed human carcinogen (International Agency for Research on Cancer - IARC - Group 1).
Even intact sodium benzoate has managed to generate controversy, lately. For example, there has been a linkage reported between use of this preservative and hyperactivity in young children. Another study has suggested cellular damage to result from this preservative. Perhaps it would be better not to follow the herd in the matter of using sodium benzoate in your product. In fact, as these side effects become more widely known, it might even be wise to advertise the absence of sodium benzoate in a product, especially if the absence of sodium benzoate becomes a competitive advantage.
The best choice of preservative is to find what works against the very microorganisms that are causing a given spoilage problem. Such information should be part of a HACCP plan anyway. Use of a preservative cocktail that has been demonstrated effective against potential contaminants is the definition of a Critical Control Point (CCP). This science-based approach is one way to knock down two birds (product shelf-life and food safety regulatory affairs) with one stone.
Copyright © 2012 by M. Mychajlonka, Ph. D.