Weak-acid preservatives: modelling microbial inhibition and response


Dr R.J. Lambert, Microbiology Section, Unilever Research, Colworth House, Sharnbrook, Bedford MK44 1LQ, UK (e-mail: RONNIE.LAMBERT@UNILEVER.COM).


Weak-acid preservatives are widely used to prevent microbial spoilage of acidic foods and beverages. Characteristically, weak-acid preservatives do not kill micro-organisms but inhibit growth, causing very extended lag phases. Preservatives are more effective at low pH values where solutions contain increased concentrations of undissociated acids. Inhibition by weak-acids involves rapid diffusion of undissociated molecules through the plasma membrane; dissociation of these molecules within cells liberates protons, thus acidifying the cytoplasm and preventing growth. By modelling preservative action in yeast, using a thermodynamic and kinetic approach, it was possible to demonstrate that: (i) inhibition depends more on the degree to which individual preservatives are concentrated within cells, rather than on undissociated acid concentration per se; (ii) it is entirely feasible for microbes to pump protons out of the cell during extended lag phase and raise internal pH (pHi), despite further influx of preservatives; (iii) the duration of the lag phase can be predicted from the model, using a Gaussian fit of proton-pumping H+-ATPase activity against pHi; (iv) theoretical ATP consumption for proton pumping can be directly correlated with the reduction in cell yield observed in glucose-limited cultures.