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Sorbic acid sources, health risks

Thursday, November 02, 2017 by

Sorbic acid is a natural organic compound most often used as a food preservative. It was first discovered in 1859 by the German chemist August Wilhelm von Hofmann, who isolated sorbic acid from the unripe berries of the rowan (Sorbus aucuparia) tree.

The efficacy of sorbic acid as a bacterial, mold, and yeast growth inhibitor are such that it’s widely utilized in the preservation of cheeses, wines, refrigerated meat and shellfish, and baked goods. In addition, sorbic acid is used to improve milling characteristics in rubber industry processes, and serves as an auxiliary material for pharmaceuticals.

Harmful effects that can be caused by sorbic acid

Sorbic acid is generally considered safe, though there have been numerous side effects linked to its usage and consumption. Risks associated with the ingestion of sorbic acid include:

  • Diarrhea
  • Headaches
  • Mild increase in the volume of urine
  • Nausea
  • Skin redness or flushing
  • Stomach cramps
  • Vomiting

Skin contact with sorbic acid has been known to result in contact urticaria. This skin condition is characterized by the immediate yet transient localized redness and swelling on the area of the skin that came into contact with sorbic acid. The other symptoms of contact urticaria are tingling and itching. In some cases, however, contact urticaria can affect the eyes and respiratory system, leading to a person to experience a runny nose, watery eyes, or wheezing. Contact urticaria is a minor and temporary skin condition that usually recedes within a period of 24 hours.

Although rare, sorbic acid can cause allergic contact dermatitis, also known as contact allergy. As a form of eczema, allergic contact dermatitis is brought about by an allergic reaction to sorbic acid. Treating allergic contact dermatitis typically involves creams, topical steroids, or antibiotics.

Those involved in the handling of pure, undiluted sorbic acid are at risk of toxic reactions to this substance. One of these reactions is anaphylaxis, a serious and life-threatening allergic reaction that requires immediate medical treatment.

In an experiment using pregnant laboratory rabbits, large doses of sorbic acid were linked to severe stomach irritation, decreased food consumption, and malnutrition, among others. The researchers behind this study noted that the resulting malnutrition was most likely due to the antimicrobial qualities of sorbic acid killing the natural flora inhabiting the rabbits’ intestines.

Body systems harmed by sorbic acid

Sorbic acid is considered a skin irritant, and has the potential to be an eye and respiratory system irritant too. In addition, sorbic acid may be harmful to the digestive system when consumed in great amounts.

Where to learn more


Sorbic acid can cause skin irritation on contact, particularly contact urticaria and allergic contact dermatitis. In some instances, extracutaneous reactions may occur, wherein the eyes and respiratory system exhibit allergic reactions as well.

Sorbic acid can be harmful to the digestive system since this substance can irritate and throw the off the balance of gut bacteria.

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