With American diners readily adopting new trends in food service— going organic, preservative-free, and non-GMO— producers must find a way to ensure that food stays fresh on the supermarket shelf and that preservatives stay off the ingredient label. According to a new study in the Journal of Food Science, essential oils may hold the key to giving the discriminating American consumer exactly what they want -- foods that are fresh-tasting and completely natural.
Not Just For Aromatherapy
Defined as "volatile odoriferous oils that are extracted from various plant components (flowers, leaves, seeds, etc)," essential oils have also been widely used as food flavorings that provide antimicrobial, analgesic, and antioxidant health benefits. Essential oils also improve the ability of packaging materials to provide water vapor barriers for foods that are hydrophobic.
Volatile constituents found in essential oils include hydrocarbons, acids, alcohols, ketones, oxides, and ethers. Classified as phenylpropanoids and terpenoids, these compounds not only represent a viable solution to the increasing demand for organic, preservative-free food, but may also relieve health conditions involving various fungal or viral infections, gastrointestinal problems, and chronic pain.
Do Synthetic Preservatives Deserve Their Bad Reputation?
Yes and no. While some food preservatives do not present a significant health risk unless consumed in excessive quantities, others like aspartame, saccharin, food dyes, transfats, and mycoprotein do have some immediate, measurable effects on your health. Years of clinical research has found that these preservatives/additives contribute to the development of chronic medical conditions, specifically cancer, kidney damage, and cardiovascular disease as well as severe food allergies
Potential Applications for Using Essential Oils as Natural Preservatives
As hot new “healthy” trends in food service like use of tree nut oils, gluten-free diets, and locally sourcing foods evolve into wide scale practices, essential oils may soon become de rigeur for food manufacturers.
Research conducted on the efficacy of essential oils— specifically, thyme, clove, bay, and cinnamon— on full-fat and low-fat soft cheese against Salmonella enteritidis and Listeria monocytogenes found that "selected plant essential oils can act as effective inhibitors of Listeria and Salmonella in food products."
Another study published in the Journal of Applied Microbiology assessed the volatile oils of clove, black pepper, geranium, oregano, thyme, and nutmeg against 25 different types of food-borne bacteria, including spoilage bacteria and plant pathogens. Results found that these oils "exhibited considerable inhibitory effects" in dramatically reducing or eliminating bacteria activity conducive to the contamination of food.
For use in foods, cosmetics and other consumer products, essential oils are extracted from plants via steam distillation or solvent extraction. The most common is steam distillation, which involves all plant material being placed into a distillation device over heated water. Intense amounts of steam passing through the stems, petals, seeds, and woody parts of the plants vaporizes volatile compounds, sends the vapor through coils, and then condenses the vapor into liquid.
Although extraction of essential oils is more expensive than manufacturing synthetic food preservatives in bulk quantities, food manufacturers may have to make room in their budgets for essential oils as food preservatives if the currently strong desire for organic foods continues to sway Americans concerned about the health risks of possibly carcinogenic or toxic preservatives.
Why Essential Oils for Food Enhancement?
What makes essential oils so popular as one of the many new trends in food service is the mounting evidence that shows essential oils actually provide numerous health benefits, depending on the type of essential oil. Camphor oil, for example, may be viable as a decongestant and an anti-inflammatory while cinnamon works as an antibacterial, antimicrobial agent— useful for relieving indigestion, skin problems, and even halitosis.
For now, food industry experts do not know whether essential oils will eventually replace all synthetic food components. However, they do know that advertising your company's products as an "naturally preserved" certainly won't hurt your revenue figures.