What is a natural antioxidant and why is it useful in food?

Before understanding what antioxidants are and talking about natural antioxidants in food, you first have to know the concept of food additives, as they are part of this group.

Introduction to the concept of food additives

According to the Spanish Food Code, additives are “all substances that can be intentionally added to foods and beverages, with no intention of changing their nutritional value, in order to modify their characteristics, processing or preservation techniques or to improve their adaptation to the use for which they are intended. ” They are substances that are intentionally added and their presence fulfils a specific objective. Additives are usually incorporated to modify or stabilise organoleptic properties, to stabilise physical characteristics, to extend shelf life or to improve or correct components of a food; however, they are not used to increase the nutritional value of food. There are different types of food additives, and among them we find the group of antioxidants.

From that definition, natural antioxidants are naturally occurring additives that aim to delay the oxidative rancidity of the product to make its conditions optimal for a longer period of time. Some of the most commonly used natural antioxidants are tocopherols, rosemary extract or ascorbic acid, which are increasingly being sought after by companies in the food industry because of their many benefits.

Over the centuries, nature has developed different compounds to prevent the oxidation of lipids. Some of these antioxidants have been identified and characterised, but many others have not been discovered yet. Nowadays there are several natural antioxidants commonly used by the food industry, such as those mentioned above.

How did natural antioxidants come about?

Throughout history fats have been a fundamental part of human feeding due to their nutritional properties, their caloric contribution and many other properties that they contribute to foods.

Since mankind began to accumulate food and subsequently to market it, people have always sought ways to protect food from deterioration and rancidity. The first techniques were based on physical treatments, and later chemical methods. Techniques such as salted or smoked foods are some of the ways society had to preserve products. However, from the twentieth century, due to the demographic explosion and socio-demographic changes, the use of additives to delay the oxidation of products and to increase their shelf life was increased.


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Initially, food companies resorted mostly to synthetic antioxidants, however, and as the years go by, there has been a change in this trend and more and more companies are choosing to use antioxidants of natural origin to protect their products, thanks to the benefits they bring and the increased demand for natural ingredients by consumers.

Other uses of natural antioxidants

Today the industry has evolved, and natural antioxidants are not only used in human food, but also in other industries such as cosmetics, nutraceuticals and animal feed. In all these markets, compounds that are susceptible to oxidation are used, so the use of natural antioxidants has also been growing due to its advantages and its capacity to increase the shelf life of the products. Some of the most common applications of natural antioxidants in cosmetics are in anti-aging formulations, face and body creams, essential oils, perfumes and spa products. They can also be used in balms and lipsticks. With regard to antioxidants for animal nutrition, some of the most common applications are fats, oils, fat soluble vitamins, pigments, as well as meat and fishmeal.

Why use natural antioxidants in the food industry?

Although natural antioxidants have applications in different sectors, in this article we will focus on their application in the food sector.

The oxidation of fats in food is an inevitable reaction, which increases as time passes. However, it is possible to delay the oxidative process by using natural antioxidants in order to preserve food for a longer period of time.

The oxidation of food not only changes the colour, smell or taste of the food, but also causes foods to lose their nutritional value and rancid products may be a problem for the health of the person who ingests them. This is why the food industry uses additives such as antioxidants to protect products.

Some of the main reasons why companies today prefer to use natural antioxidants are:

  • They have a high antioxidant capacity
  • They have lower volatility and higher stability at high temperatures
  • They have no legal limitations and are allowed in virtually every country
  • They have greater solubility and are easily incorporated into the production process
  • They are in line with the market trend and consumer demand

Where can natural antioxidants be used within the food industry?

Below we will name some of the most common natural antioxidants and their application within the food industry.

Ascorbic Acid (E-300), along with its derivatives, is one of the antioxidants used in foods such as meats, juices, beverages, pastries or fruits. In baking it can also be used as a technological aid that helps to improve dough. Its application in fatty products is limited due to its lipid insolubility.

This additive acts as an antioxidant through the extinction of oxygen, the reduction of free radicals and the regeneration of primary antioxidants. It is considered a safe food additive and has no use limits. Ascorbic Acid is very susceptible to elements such as heat, light or oxygen, so it is often necessary to add it exogenously to food.

In addition to its antioxidant activity, it acts as vitamin C, a flavouring, acidulant, colour fixative and reducing agent.

Mixtures of Tocopherols (E-306) are another natural antioxidant most used in food, mainly in products containing fats, such as oils, cookies, cereals, snacks, sauces, flour, confectionery, etc. Tocopherols are a mixture of four isomers and their antioxidant activity lies mainly in the Gamma and Delta isomers, being practically null in the Alpha and Beta isomers. These antioxidants prevent the oxidation of fats by stopping chain reactions of free radicals.

Why choose natural antioxidants based on tocopherols? Antioxidants based on Tocopherols are an excellent solution to stabilise fats and oils. They are a natural antioxidant with a lot of benefits, such as its resistance to high temperatures, its high solubility, its null impact on the colour or odour of the final product, or the possibility of being used in organic products. In addition, it is allowed to use as an antioxidant in any country in the world.

Rosemary extract (E-392) is another antioxidant widely used in food that has a good performance in animal fats, but has certain problems of smell and taste. It is often used in combination with other antioxidants such as Tocopherols looking for a synergistic effect between these ingredients.

This antioxidant is an extract obtained from the Rosemary plant using solvents suitable for human consumption. Its most important compounds from the antioxidant point of view are Rosmarinic Acid, Camosol and Carnosidic Acid.

The use of antioxidants today

The use of natural antioxidants as additives in the food industry is a necessity that is increasingly present in the market and is increasingly demanded by society. That is why, currently, using natural components becomes an added value for the product.

In addition, the fact that there are natural antioxidants for different applications, allows them to be used in a wide variety of products within the food sector, so more and more companies are choosing to use these types of ingredients in their formulations.

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