Sorbic acid is a natural compound that is also made synthetically. First isolated from berries in the 1800s, it became commercially available for use as a food preservative in the 1940s and 1950s.. Due to its antimicrobial properties, it's added to a variety of foods to preserve freshness.
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About Food Additives
You can find food additives in almost all packaged or processed foods. They serve five primary functions: to improve or preserve nutrients, enhance flavor and color, give food a smooth and consistent texture, control acid balance, and maintain wholesomeness. As an antimicrobial agent, sorbic acid falls into the category of additives that help maintain wholesomeness. The main microbes it protects against are yeast and molds, according to Iowa State University Extension and Outreach.
Sorbic Acid in Food
Because sorbic acid controls the growth of yeast and molds, manufacturers add it to the types of foods prone to these particular microbes to keep them from rotting on store shelves. A few examples of foods that may contain sorbic acid are dairy foods like cheese and yogurt, dried fruit, fish, meat, pickles, olives, soups, prepared salads, jelly, syrups, wine, beer, soft drinks and baked goods such as breads, bagels and pastries.
Sorbic Acid Safety
Commercially produced sorbic acid is made synthetically and is thus an artificial preservative, according to Ruth Winter, author of "A Consumer's Dictionary of Food Additives." Sorbic acid is on the U.S. Food and Drug Administration list of "generally recognized as safe," or GRAS, substances. The Select Committee on GRAS Substances Opinion asserted in 1975 that sorbic acid poses no hazard to health when consumed at the typical levels found in food, according to the FDA. The Select Committee made this assertion based on animal data. To date, there are no published human studies evaluating the safety of commercially produced sorbic acid.
Not Everyone Wants Sorbic Acid
To satisfy a growing number of people who want fewer additives, some food manufacturers have voluntarily removed sorbic acid as a preservative. The Chicago Tribune reported in a February 2014 article that Kraft Foods planned to voluntarily removed sorbic acid from its American and White American varieties of individually wrapped sliced cheeses. There were no adverse side effect reports. Kraft made the decision based on the growing desire to avoid artificial preservatives, according to the Tribune article.