Potassium sorbate is a chemical additive. It’s widely used as a preservative in foods, drinks, and personal care products. It is an odorless and tasteless salt synthetically produced from sorbic acid and potassium hydroxide.
Potassium sorbate prolongs the shelf life of foods by stopping the growth of mold, yeast, and fungi. It was discovered in the 1850s by the French, who derived it from berries of the mountain ash tree. Its safety and uses as a preservative have been researched for the last fifty years. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recognizes it as generally safe when used appropriately.
You'll find potassium sorbate on the list of ingredients for many common foods. It’s a popular preservative because it’s effective and doesn't change the qualities of a product, such as taste, smell, or appearance. It's also water-soluble, and it works at room temperature.
You may find it added to many food products, such as:
- apple cider
- baked goods
- canned fruits and vegetables
- dried meats
- dried fruit
- ice cream
- soft drinks and juices
Potassium sorbate is used as an antimicrobial and preservative in personal care items, as well, such as:
- eyeshadow and other cosmetics
- shampoos and moisturizers
- contact lens solution
Potassium sorbate is also approved for safe use as a preservative in moist cat and dog foods and in other animal feed.
Regulatory agencies such as the FDA, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, and the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) have determined that potassium sorbate is “generally regarded as safe,” abbreviated as GRAS. When you eat potassium sorbate as a food additive, it passes through your system harmlessly as water and carbon dioxide. It does not accumulate in your body.
What does the research say?
In 2015, the EFSA reviewed potassium sorbate and two other food additives. It set a temporary acceptable daily intake of 3 mg per kg of body weight per day. This limit is in response to questions about reproductive and developmental toxicity from animal research. Rats were fed 300 mg per day with no observed bad effects. For added safety, the EFSO set a standard that was 100 times lower.
The maximum acceptable daily intake for humans is 25 milligrams per kilogram (mg per kg) of body weight per day. For an adult of 150 pounds, this comes to 1,750 mg per day.
Some people may have an allergic reaction to potassium sorbate in foods. These allergies are rare. Allergies to potassium sorbate are more common with cosmetics and personal products, where it can cause skin or scalp irritation. However, the Environmental Working Group has rated potassium sorbate with a low risk as a skin irritant.
If you use potassium sorbate as a pure ingredient, for example in winemaking, it can irritate your eyes and skin if you spill it.
Despite purity requirements for manufacturers, it's possible that potassium sorbate as a food additive can be contaminated. It may be contaminated with:
Making a choice
Read your food ingredient labels carefully. Be aware of what is in your food. Even though potassium sorbate and other additives are considered safe, you can avoid them by eating fewer processed foods.
If you think you have an allergy to potassium sorbate, see if your allergic reactions go away when you stop consuming or using items that contain the additive.
Food additives have become a controversial subject. It's important to keep a scientific perspective when reading web-based information and scare stories. Is the information backed up by facts, or is it biased? Research has shown that potassium sorbate is safe for most people to eat, though it may cause some skin allergies when used in personal care products.