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Int J Food Microbiol. 2009 Nov 30;136(1):37-43. doi: 10.1016/j.ijfoodmicro.2009.09.025. Epub 2009 Oct 4.

Inhibition of spoilage mould conidia by acetic acid and sorbic acid involves different modes of action, requiring modification of the classical weak-acid theory.

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School of Biology, University of Nottingham, University Park, Nottingham, United Kingdom.


Fungal spoilage of many foods is prevented by weak-acid preservatives such as sorbic acid or acetic acid. We show that sorbic and acetic acids do not both inhibit cells by lowering of internal pH alone and that the "classical weak-acid theory" must be revised. The "classical weak-acid theory" suggests that all lipophilic acids with identical pK(a) values are equally effective as preservatives, causing inhibition by diffusion of molecular acids into the cell, dissociation, and subsequent acidification of the cytoplasm. Using a number of spoilage fungi from different genera, we have shown that sorbic acid was far more toxic than acetic acid, and no correlation existed between resistance to acetic acid and resistance to sorbic acid. The molar ratio of minimum inhibitory concentrations (MICs) (acetic: sorbic) was 58 for Paecilomyces variotii and 14 for Aspergillus phoenicis. Using flow cytometry on germinating conidia of Aspergillusniger, acetic acid at pH 4.0 caused an immediate decline in the mean cytoplasmic pH (pH(i)) falling from neutrality to approximately pH 4.7 at the MIC (80 mM). Sorbic acid also caused a rapid but far smaller drop in pH(i), at the MIC (4.5 mM); the pH remained above pH 6.3. Over 0-5 mM, a number of other weak acids caused a similar fall in cytoplasmic pH. It was concluded that while acetic acid inhibition of A. niger conidia was due to cytoplasmic acidification, inhibition by sorbic acid was not. A possible membrane-mediated mode of action of sorbic acid is discussed.

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