Food preservation is to prevent the growth of microorganisms (such as yeasts), or other microorganisms (although some methods work by introducing benign bacteria or fungi to the food), as well as slowing the oxidation of fats that cause rancidity. Food preservation may also include processes that inhibit visual deterioration, such as the enzymatic browning reaction in apples after they are cut during food preparation.
Many processes designed to preserve food involve more than one food preservation method. Preserving fruit by turning it into jam, for example, involves boiling (to reduce the fruit’s moisture content and to kill bacteria, etc.), sugaring (to prevent their re-growth) and sealing within an airtight jar (to prevent recontamination). Some traditional methods of preserving food have been shown to have a lower energy input and carbon footprint, when compared to modern methods.
Some methods of food preservation are known to create carcinogens. In 2015, the International Agency for Research on Cancer of the World Health Organization classified processed meat, i.e. meat that has undergone salting, curing, fermenting, and smoking, as "carcinogenic to humans".
The earliest form of curing was dehydration or drying, used as early as 12,000 BC. Smoking and salting techniques improve on the drying process and add antimicrobial agents that aid in preservation. Smoke deposits a number of pyrolysis products onto the food, including the phenols syringol, guaiacol and catechol. Salt accelerates the drying process using osmosis and also inhibits the growth of several common strains of bacteria. More recently nitrites have been used to cure meat, contributing a characteristic pink colour.
Cooling preserves food by slowing down the growth and reproduction of microorganisms and the action of enzymes that causes the food to rot. The introduction of commercial and domestic refrigerators drastically improved the diets of many in the Western world by allowing food such as fresh fruit, salads and dairy products to be stored safely for longer periods, particularly during warm weather.
Before the era of mechanical refrigeration, cooling for food storage occurred in the forms of root cellars and iceboxes. Rural people often did their own ice cutting, whereas town and city dwellers often relied on the ice trade. Today, root cellaring remains popular among people who value various goals, including local food, heirloom crops, traditional home cooking techniques, family farming, frugality, self-sufficiency, organic farming, and others.
Freezing is also one of the most commonly used processes, both commercially and domestically, for preserving a very wide range of foods, including prepared foods that would not have required freezing in their unprepared state. For example, potato waffles are stored in the freezer, but potatoes themselves require only a cool dark place to ensure many months' storage. Cold stores provide large-volume, long-term storage for strategic food stocks held in case of national emergency in many countries.
Boiling liquid food items can kill any existing microbes. Milk and water are often boiled to kill any harmful microbes that may be present in them.
Heating to temperatures which are sufficient to kill microorganisms inside the food is a method used with perpetual stews. Milk is also boiled before storing to kill many microorganisms.
The earliest cultures have used sugar as a preservative, and it was commonplace to store fruit in honey. Similar to pickled foods, sugar cane was brought to Europe through the trade routes. In northern climates without sufficient sun to dry foods, preserves are made by heating the fruit with sugar. "Sugar tends to draw water from the microbes (plasmolysis). This process leaves the microbial cells dehydrated, thus killing them. In this way, the food will remain safe from microbial spoilage." Sugar is used to preserve fruits, either in an antimicrobial syrup with fruit such as apples, pears, peaches, apricots, and plums, or in crystallized form where the preserved material is cooked in sugar to the point of crystallization and the resultant product is then stored dry. This method is used for the skins of citrus fruit (candied peel), angelica, and ginger. Also, sugaring can be used in the production of jam and jelly.
Pickling is a method of preserving food in an edible, antimicrobial liquid. Pickling can be broadly classified into two categories: chemical pickling and fermentation pickling.
In chemical pickling, the food is placed in an edible liquid that inhibits or kills bacteria and other microorganisms. Typical pickling agents include brine (high in salt), vinegar, alcohol, and vegetable oil. Many chemical pickling processes also involve heating or boiling so that the food being preserved becomes saturated with the pickling agent. Common chemically pickled foods include cucumbers, peppers, corned beef, herring, and eggs, as well as mixed vegetables such as piccalilli.
In fermentation pickling, bacteria in the liquid produce organic acids as preservation agents, typically by a process that produces lactic acid through the presence of lactobacillales. Fermented pickles include sauerkraut, nukazuke, kimchi, and surströmming.
Sodium hydroxide (lye) makes food too alkaline for bacterial growth. Lye will saponify fats in the food, which will change its flavor and texture. Lutefisk uses lye in its preparation, as do some olive recipes. Modern recipes for century eggs also call for lye.
Canning involves cooking food, sealing it in sterilized cans or jars, and boiling the containers to kill or weaken any remaining bacteria as a form of sterilization. It was invented by the French confectioner Nicolas Appert. By 1806, this process was used by the French Navy to preserve meat, fruit, vegetables, and even milk. Although Appert had discovered a new way of preservation, it wasn't understood until 1864 when Louis Pasteur found the relationship between microorganisms, food spoilage, and illness.
Foods have varying degrees of natural protection against spoilage and may require that the final step occur in a pressure cooker. High-acid fruits like strawberries require no preservatives to can and only a short boiling cycle, whereas marginal vegetables such as carrots require longer boiling and addition of other acidic elements. Low-acid foods, such as vegetables and meats, require pressure canning. Food preserved by canning or bottling is at immediate risk of spoilage once the can or bottle has been opened.
Lack of quality control in the canning process may allow ingress of water or micro-organisms. Most such failures are rapidly detected as decomposition within the can causes gas production and the can will swell or burst. However, there have been examples of poor manufacture (underprocessing) and poor hygiene allowing contamination of canned food by the obligate anaerobe Clostridium botulinum, which produces an acute toxin within the food, leading to severe illness or death. This organism produces no gas or obvious taste and remains undetected by taste or smell. Its toxin is denatured by cooking, however. Cooked mushrooms, handled poorly and then canned, can support the growth of Staphylococcus aureus, which produces a toxin that is not destroyed by canning or subsequent reheating.
Food may be preserved by cooking in a material that solidifies to form a gel. Such materials include gelatin, agar, maize flour, and arrowroot flour. Some foods naturally form a protein gel when cooked, such as eels and elvers, and sipunculid worms, which are a delicacy in Xiamen, in the Fujian province of the People's Republic of China. Jellied eels are a delicacy in the East End of London, where they are eaten with mashed potatoes. Potted meats in aspic (a gel made from gelatin and clarified meat broth) were a common way of serving meat off-cuts in the UK until the 1950s. Many jugged meats are also jellied.
A traditional British way of preserving meat (particularly shrimp) is by setting it in a pot and sealing it with a layer of fat. Also common is potted chicken liver; jellying is one of the steps in producing traditional pâtés.
Meat can be preserved by jugging. Jugging is the process of stewing the meat (commonly game or fish) in a covered earthenware jug or casserole. The animal to be jugged is usually cut into pieces, placed into a tightly-sealed jug with brine or gravy, and stewed. Red wine and/or the animal's own blood is sometimes added to the cooking liquid. Jugging was a popular method of preserving meat up until the middle of the 20th century.
Burial of food can preserve it due to a variety of factors: lack of light, lack of oxygen, cool temperatures, pH level, or desiccants in the soil. Burial may be combined with other methods such as salting or fermentation. Most foods can be preserved in soil that is very dry and salty (thus a desiccant) such as sand, or soil that is frozen.
Many root vegetables are very resistant to spoilage and require no other preservation than storage in cool dark conditions, for example by burial in the ground, such as in a storage clamp. Century eggs are traditionally created by placing eggs in alkaline mud (or other alkaline substance), resulting in their "inorganic" fermentation through raised pH instead of spoiling. The fermentation preserves them and breaks down some of the complex, less flavorful proteins and fats into simpler, more flavorful ones. Cabbage was traditionally buried during Autumn in northern US farms for preservation. Some methods keep it crispy while other methods produce sauerkraut. A similar process is used in the traditional production of kimchi. Sometimes meat is buried under conditions that cause preservation. If buried on hot coals or ashes, the heat can kill pathogens, the dry ash can desiccate, and the earth can block oxygen and further contamination. If buried where the earth is very cold, the earth acts like a refrigerator. Before burial, meat (pig/boar) can be fatted. The tallow of the animal is heated and poured over meat in a barrel. Once the fat hardens the barrel is sealed and buried in a cold cellar or ground.
In Orissa, India, it is practical to store rice by burying it underground. This method helps to store for three to six months during the dry season.
Some foods, such as many cheeses, wines, and beers, use specific micro-organisms that combat spoilage from other less-benign organisms. These micro-organisms keep pathogens in check by creating an environment toxic for themselves and other micro-organisms by producing acid or alcohol. Methods of fermentation include, but are not limited to, starter micro-organisms, salt, hops, controlled (usually cool) temperatures and controlled (usually low) levels of oxygen. These methods are used to create the specific controlled conditions that will support the desirable organisms that produce food fit for human consumption.
Fermentation is the microbial conversion of starch and sugars into alcohol. Not only can fermentation produce alcohol, but it can also be a valuable preservation technique. Fermentation can also make foods more nutritious and palatable. For example, drinking water in the Middle Ages was dangerous because it often contained pathogens that could spread disease. When the water is made into beer, the boiling during the brewing process kills any bacteria in the water that could make people sick. Additionally, the water now has the nutrients from the barley and other ingredients, and the microorganisms can also produce vitamins as they ferment.
Modern industrial techniques
Techniques of food preservation were developed in research laboratories for commercial applications.
Pasteurization is a process for preservation of liquid food. It was originally applied to combat the souring of young local wines. Today, the process is mainly applied to dairy products. In this method, milk is heated at about 70 °C (158 °F) for 15–30 seconds to kill the bacteria present in it and cooling it quickly to 10 °C (50 °F) to prevent the remaining bacteria from growing. The milk is then stored in sterilized bottles or pouches in cold places. This method was invented by Louis Pasteur, a French chemist, in 1862.
Vacuum-packing stores food in a vacuum environment, usually in an air-tight bag or bottle. The vacuum environment strips bacteria of oxygen needed for survival. Vacuum-packing is commonly used for storing nuts to reduce loss of flavor from oxidization. A major drawback to vacuum packaging, at the consumer level, is that vacuum sealing can deform contents and rob certain foods, such as cheese, of its flavor.
Artificial food additives
Preservative food additives can be antimicrobial—which inhibit the growth of bacteria or fungi, including mold—or antioxidant, such as oxygen absorbers, which inhibit the oxidation of food constituents. Common antimicrobial preservatives include calcium propionate, sodium nitrate, sodium nitrite, sulfites (sulfur dioxide, sodium bisulfite, potassium hydrogen sulfite, etc.), and EDTA. Antioxidants include butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA) and butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT). Other preservatives include formaldehyde (usually in solution), glutaraldehyde (insecticide), ethanol, and methylchloroisothiazolinone.
Irradiation of food is the exposure of food to ionizing radiation. The two types of ionizing radiation used are beta particles (high-energy electrons) and gamma rays (emitted from radioactive sources such as cobalt-60 or cesium-137). Treatment effects include killing bacteria, molds, and insect pests, reducing the ripening and spoiling of fruits, and at higher doses inducing sterility. The technology may be compared to pasteurization; it is sometimes called "cold pasteurization", as the product is not heated.
The irradiation process is not directly related to nuclear energy, but does use radioactive isotopes produced in nuclear reactors. Cobalt-60, for example does not occur naturally and can only be produced through neutron bombardment of cobalt-59. Ionizing radiation at high energy levels is hazardous to life (hence its usefulness in sterilisation); for this reason, irradiation facilities have a heavily shielded irradiation room where the process takes place. Radiation safety procedures are used to ensure that neither the workers in such facilities nor the environment receives any radiation dose above administrative limits. Irradiated food does not and cannot become radioactive, and national and international expert bodies have declared food irradiation as wholesome. However, the wholesomeness of consuming such food is disputed by opponents and consumer organizations. National and international expert bodies have declared food irradiation as "wholesome"; organizations of the United Nations, such as the World Health Organization and Food and Agriculture Organization, endorse food irradiation. International legislation on whether food may be irradiated or not varies worldwide from no regulation to full banning. Irradiation may allow lower-quality or contaminated foods to be rendered marketable.
Approximately 500,000 tons of food items are irradiated per year worldwide in over 40 countries. These are mainly spices and condiments with an increasing segment of fresh fruit irradiated for fruit fly quarantine.
Pulsed electric field electroporation
Pulsed electric field (PEF) electroporation is a method for processing cells by means of brief pulses of a strong electric field. PEF holds potential as a type of low-temperature alternative pasteurization process for sterilizing food products. In PEF processing, a substance is placed between two electrodes, then the pulsed electric field is applied. The electric field enlarges the pores of the cell membranes, which kills the cells and releases their contents. PEF for food processing is a developing technology still being researched. There have been limited industrial applications of PEF processing for the pasteurization of fruit juices. To date, several PEF treated juices are available on the market in Europe. Furthermore, for several years a juice pasteurization application in the US has used PEF. For cell disintegration purposes especially potato processors show great interest in PEF technology as an efficient alternative for their preheaters. Potato applications are already operational in the US and Canada. There are also commercial PEF potato applications in various countries in Europe, as well as in Australia, India, and China.
Modifying atmosphere is a way to preserve food by operating on the atmosphere around it. Salad crops that are notoriously difficult to preserve are now being packaged in sealed bags with an atmosphere modified to reduce the oxygen (O2) concentration and increase the carbon dioxide (CO2) concentration. There is concern that, although salad vegetables retain their appearance and texture in such conditions, this method of preservation may not retain nutrients, especially vitamins. There are two methods for preserving grains with carbon dioxide. One method is placing a block of dry ice in the bottom and filling the can with the grain. Another method is purging the container from the bottom by gaseous carbon dioxide from a cylinder or bulk supply vessel.
Nitrogen gas (N2) at concentrations of 98% or higher is also used effectively to kill insects in the grain through hypoxia. However, carbon dioxide has an advantage in this respect, as it kills organisms through hypercarbia and hypoxia (depending on concentration), but it requires concentrations of above 35%, or so. This makes carbon dioxide preferable for fumigation in situations where a hermetic seal cannot be maintained.
Controlled Atmospheric Storage (CA): "CA storage is a non-chemical process. Oxygen levels in the sealed rooms are reduced, usually by the infusion of nitrogen gas, from the approximate 21 percent in the air we breathe to 1 percent or 2 percent. Temperatures are kept at a constant 0–2 °C (32–36 °F). Humidity is maintained at 95 percent and carbon dioxide levels are also controlled. Exact conditions in the rooms are set according to the apple variety. Researchers develop specific regimens for each variety to achieve the best quality. Computers help keep conditions constant." "Eastern Washington, where most of Washington’s apples are grown, has enough warehouse storage for 181 million boxes of fruit, according to a report done in 1997 by managers for the Washington State Department of Agriculture Plant Services Division. The storage capacity study shows that 67 percent of that space—enough for 121,008,000 boxes of apples—is CA storage." 
Air-tight storage of grains (sometimes called hermetic storage) relies on the respiration of grain, insects, and fungi that can modify the enclosed atmosphere sufficiently to control insect pests. This is a method of great antiquity, as well as having modern equivalents. The success of the method relies on having the correct mix of sealing, grain moisture, and temperature.
This process subjects the surface of food to a "flame" of ionized gas molecules, such as helium or nitrogen. This causes micro-organisms to die off on the surface.
High-pressure food preservation
High-pressure food preservation or pascalization refers to the use of a food preservation technique that makes use of high pressure. "Pressed inside a vessel exerting 70,000 pounds per square inch (480 MPa) or more, food can be processed so that it retains its fresh appearance, flavor, texture and nutrients while disabling harmful microorganisms and slowing spoilage." By 2005, the process was being used for products ranging from orange juice to guacamole to deli meats and widely sold.
Biopreservation is the use of natural or controlled microbiota or antimicrobials as a way of preserving food and extending its shelf life. Beneficial bacteria or the fermentation products produced by these bacteria are used in biopreservation to control spoilage and render pathogens inactive in food. It is a benign ecological approach which is gaining increasing attention.
Of special interest are lactic acid bacteria (LAB). Lactic acid bacteria have antagonistic properties that make them particularly useful as biopreservatives. When LABs compete for nutrients, their metabolites often include active antimicrobials such as lactic acid, acetic acid, hydrogen peroxide, and peptide bacteriocins. Some LABs produce the antimicrobial nisin, which is a particularly effective preservative.
These days, LAB bacteriocins are used as an integral part of hurdle technology. Using them in combination with other preservative techniques can effectively control spoilage bacteria and other pathogens, and can inhibit the activities of a wide spectrum of organisms, including inherently resistant Gram-negative bacteria.
Hurdle technology is a method of ensuring that pathogens in food products can be eliminated or controlled by combining more than one approach. These approaches can be thought of as "hurdles" the pathogen has to overcome if it is to remain active in the food. The right combination of hurdles can ensure all pathogens are eliminated or rendered harmless in the final product.
Hurdle technology has been defined by Leistner (2000) as an intelligent combination of hurdles that secures the microbial safety and stability as well as the organoleptic and nutritional quality and the economic viability of food products. The organoleptic quality of the food refers to its sensory properties, that is its look, taste, smell, and texture.
Examples of hurdles in a food system are high temperature during processing, low temperature during storage, increasing the acidity, lowering the water activity or redox potential, and the presence of preservatives or biopreservatives. According to the type of pathogens and how risky they are, the intensity of the hurdles can be adjusted individually to meet consumer preferences in an economical way, without sacrificing the safety of the product.
|Principal hurdles used for food preservation (after Leistner, 1995)|
|Low temperature||T||Chilling, freezing|
|Reduced water activity||aw||Drying, curing, conserving|
|Increased acidity||pH||Acid addition or formation|
|Reduced redox potential||Eh||Removal of oxygen or addition of ascorbate|
|Biopreservatives||Competitive flora such as microbial fermentation|
|Other preservatives||Sorbates, sulfites, nitrites|
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|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Food preservation.|
- A ca. 1894 Gustav Hammer & Co. commercial cooking machinery catalogue.
- Preserving foods ~ from the Clemson Extension Home and Garden Information Center
- National Center for Home Food Preservation
- BBC News Online – US army food... just add urine
- Home Economics Archive: Tradition, Research, History (HEARTH)
An e-book collection of over 1,000 classic books on home economics spanning 1850 to 1950, created by Cornell University's Mann Library.