Is Ascorbic Acid a Preservative?

Canned Asparagus
Manufacturers preserve canned fruit with ascorbic acid. (Image: PhotoObjects.net/PhotoObjects.net/Getty Images)

Preservatives are divided into three categories: Antimicrobials, antioxidants and ascorbic acid. Antimicrobials prevent bacterial, mold and yeast development. Antioxidants preserve fats, keeping them from going rancid. Ascorbic acid, more commonly known as vitamin C, falls in the third group as a preservative that stops foods from continuing to ripen, an aging process that leads to decay.

About Ascorbic Acid

Ascorbic acid is a water-soluble vitamin with antioxidant properties. Inside your body, the nutrient preserves cell integrity by neutralizing free radicals, which are toxic molecules that can damage healthy cells and cause disease.

Preserving Properties

Ascorbic acid neutralizes oxygen when it comes into contact with it. Oxygen allows foods to continue to ripen, an aging process similar to the one people go through that ends in death. Oxygen is also vital for many microorganisms to thrive, some of which cause decay. Ascorbic acid slows or neutralizes these events. The substance blocks cured meat’s propensity to form carcinogens called nitrosamines, for example. In the process, the vitamin also preserves the flesh’s red color. In addition, ascorbic acid preserves flavor.

Food-Preservation Mechanism

Canned vegetables, bottled juices, jams and other preserved fruit are processed foods manufacturers protect with ascorbic acid. The vitamin’s acidity makes it hard for the enzyme phenolase to act. Phenolase accelerates oxidation, a chemical process in which oxygen level rises, resulting in decay. This is also the process that ascorbic acid combats.

Ascorbic Acid’s Safety

The use of ascorbic acid as a preservative is not linked to any side effects.The consumer advocacy agency Center for Science in the Public Interest also lists the vitamin as an additive that appears to be safe. Likewise, the Food and Drug Administration gives ascorbic acid a “GRAS” designation, an acronym that means the agency classifies it as a substance “generally recognized as safe.”

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