Weak-acid preservatives are widely used to maintain microbial stability in foods and beverages. Classical weak-acid theory proposes that undissociated acid molecules pass through the plasma membrane, dissociate in the neutral pH of the cytoplasm, release protons and inhibit growth through acidification of the cytoplasm. Inhibitory concentrations of sorbic acid are shown to liberate fewer protons than other weak-acid preservatives. Sorbic acid shows similar inhibition to other six-carbon acids, alcohols and aldehydes, the latter being unable to act as weak acids. A survey of 22 yeasts showed high correlation between sorbate resistance and ethanol tolerance. Inhibition by short-chain acids or alcohols showed strong correlation with lipophilicity. It is proposed that sorbic acid acts as a membrane-active substance rather than as a weak-acid preservative.