Sorbic acid is a naturally occurring compound that’s become the most commonly used food preservative in the world, and it makes the global food chain possible. It’s highly effective at inhibiting the growth of mold, which can spoil food and spread fatal diseases. For example, when sorbic acid is sprayed on the exterior of a country ham, there won’t be any mold growth for 30 days. This allows for food to be shipped and stored all over the globe.

Sorbic acid is a preferred preservative compared to nitrates, which can form carcinogenic byproducts. It’s applied to food by either spraying or dipping the food with a solution of sorbic acid and water.

Sorbic acid is most commonly found in foods, animal feeds, pharmaceutical drugs, and cosmetics.

When it comes to human foods, sorbic acid is most commonly used in:

  • wines
  • cheeses
  • baked goods
  • fresh produce
  • refrigerated meat and shellfish

Sorbic acid is used to preserve meats because of its natural antibiotic capabilities. In fact, its earliest use was against one of the deadliest toxins known to mankind, the bacteria Clostridium botulinum, which can cause botulism. Its use saved countless lives by preventing bacterial growth while allowing meats to be transported and stored safely.

Because of its anti-fungal properties, sorbic acid is also used in canned goods, including pickles, prunes, maraschino cherries, figs, and prepared salads.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration considers sorbic acid to be safe for regular use, as it’s not linked to cancer or other major health problems. Some people can be allergic to sorbic acid, but reactions are typically mild and consist of light skin itching.

While rare, allergic contact dermatitis may occur, but, ironically, over-the-counter corticosteroid creams that contain sorbic acid are often the culprit. People with eczema should avoid sorbic acid in cosmetics because of possible irritation, but avoiding it in foods is unnecessary.

If your skin reacts badly to sorbic acid, you can treat it by rinsing the affected area with water, and applying anti-itch cream. If it’s causing you problems internally, drinking eight ounces of water typically reduces symptoms.

While extremely rare, toxic reactions to sorbic acid can occur when handling it in its pure, undiluted form. In these cases, the National Library of Medicine’s Toxicology Data Network recommends washing your skin and clothes. If inhaled, moving the person to fresh air is recommended. While extremely rare, you may require hospitalization if you experience anaphylaxis. This is a severe allergic reaction that can cause you to go into shock, go pale, get a rash, and experience nausea and vomiting.

Sorbic acid has proven vital to our ability to store food and transport it across long distances. Allergies are rare and usually very mild, but exposure to undiluted sorbic acid might carry some risks.