How to Use Herbs and Spices for Food Preservation

Written by timothea xi
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How to Use Herbs and Spices for Food Preservation
Spices can preserve foods, however they should not be relied on exclusively. (bowls of spices image by isatori from

More than just a way to perk up the flavour of your foods, spices and herbs can also act to preserve food ingredients and prevent spoilage due to the antimicrobial and anti-fungal compounds they contain. Common spices like pepper, cinnamon and oregano are some of the more powerful, but others include cloves, turmeric, garlic and thyme. Use the isolated phenolic compounds found in herbs and spices, such as carvacrol found in oregano, thyme and pepper; eugenol, which is present in cinnamon, cloves and allspice; and vanillic acid, in vanilla beans and coriander, to boost foods' shelf life.

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    Apply specific components in spices and herbs in a targeted way to foods. Use the isolated terpene, S-carvone, in caraway (marketed as "Talent" in the Netherlands) to inhibit sprouting in potatoes and the formation of pathogenic fungi, as well as reduce the growth of Streptococcus thermophilus, Lactococcus lactis and E.coli. Dip the surface of tomatoes in a treatment of 13mm trans-cinnamaldehyde (a component in cinnamon, cloves and other plants) to decrease the number of bacteria and fungi by one order of magnitude within 30 minutes. Put to use another component of cinnamon, cinnamic acid, to prolong the shelf life of a wide range of fruit. For example, dip mango slices in a 5 mg/ml solution of cinnamic acid to keep them fresh for up to eight months. Be aware that cinnamic acid can cause certain fruits to brown.

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    Preserve food indirectly using spice components outside of the food. Spices don't have to be added to the food itself to serve a preservative function. Place packets of the active ingredient in spices in your packaging to make food keep longer. Before you decide to rely solely on herbs and spices to preserve your food, consider that many herbs and spices, while potent and antimicrobial, anti-fungal and antioxidant, may also not be compatible in flavour with the foods you are trying to preserve. While you might follow the lead of the U.S. Army and place sachets impregnated with the horseradish extractive allyl isothiocyanate (AITC) and mustard oil in your lunch boxes to retard spoilage in sandwich bread, by doing so you may introduce undesirable flavours into your food.

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    Use spices and herbs in conjunction with other food preservatives. Given some of the flavour compatibility issues of using herbs as the predominant food preservative, as well as their innate synergistic affinity to other components, make use of other preservatives to boost the effectiveness of the spice components alone. For example, nisin together with carvacrol can act synergistically to destroy B. cereus. Carvacrol together with cymene can inactivate B. cereus in cooked rice for 25 days. Additionally, use vanillin along with mild heat treatment and lowering of pH to keep strawberry and banana purée "minimally processed" and fresh for up to 60 days at room temperature.

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    Deploy herbal treatments in post-harvest protection of plants. Add menthone, a naturally occurring active ingredient in Japanese mint, to fumigants to treat problem-prone rice that is attacked by the rice weevil. Unlike chemical fumigants, the menthone does not leave residues and is easy to store and easily removed. However, menthone's effect on the palatability of the grain may preclude the adoption of this herbal component in preserving food.

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