Research reveals food safety benefits of spices

by Keith Nunes
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Oregano, allspice and garlic essential oils may be effective, natural barriers against E. coli, Salmonella and Listeria, according to a study in the Journal of Food Science, published by the Institute of Food Technologists. The new study from government researchers revealed that oregano oil was found to be the most effective antimicrobial, followed by allspice and garlic.

Researchers at the Processed Foods Research and Produce Safety and Microbiology units of the Western Regional Research Center from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Albany, Calif., investigated the effectiveness of the oils by incorporating them into thin, tomato-based antimicrobial coatings known as edible films. In addition to its flavor properties, tomatoes are believed to possess numerous beneficial nutritional and bioactive components that may benefit human health. Edible tomato films containing antimicrobials may protect food against contamination by pathogenic microorganisms.

Testing was done by laying the films on top of the bacteria and also by exposing the bacteria to the vapors arising from the film. According to researchers:

• Oregano oil consistently inhibited the growth of all three bacteria.

• Garlic oil was not effective against E. coli or Salmonella, but was effective against Listeria.

• Oregano and allspice oils were effective against E. coli and Salmonella. Vapor tests of oregano and allspice oils indicated that these two oils diffuse more efficiently through the air than through direct contact with the bacteria.

Listeria was less resistant to the essential oil vapors while E. coli was more resistant.

"Incorporating essential oils into edible films provides a new way to improve the safety and shelf life of foods, which will provide multiple benefits to consumers," said lead researcher W. X. Du.

Edible films for fruits and vegetables may serve as carriers for food additives including plant-derived, safe antimicrobials. The increased interest in antimicrobial films is the result of increased consumption of contaminated fresh-cut produce.

In a related study from the same U.S.D.A. research group, it was found that cinnamon, allspice and clove might have a new use in the kitchen. Essential oils from these plants may be used to protect food from bacteria according to a study in the Journal of Food Science. They evaluated the physical and antimicrobial properties of allspice, cinnamon and clove bud oils in edible films of apple puree after 24 and 48 hours. Edible films and coatings on food products can serve as carriers for a range of beneficial food additives, including antimicrobials. The oils were incorporated into edible apple puree film at ranges of 0 to 3%. The researchers found:

• The antimicrobial activity of cinnamon oil was significantly greater than allspice and clove bud oils against E. coli, Salmonella and Listeria.

• Edible films containing 3% or less of cinnamon oil were found to be effective against the three pathogens.

Salmonella showed the least resistance to the essential oils, while E. coli showed the most.

• Low concentrations (1% and 1.5%) of allspice and clove bud oils suppressed the growth of Listeria.

"The results show that apple-based films with allspice, cinnamon or clove bud oils were effective against the three bacteria. The essential oils have the potential to provide multiple benefits to consumers," says lead researcher R. J. Avena-Bustillos.

To learn more about the research, contact Jeannie Houchins ( at the Institute of Food Technologists.

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