Spices as Antimicrobials

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As early as 1500 BC, Egyptians used spices to preserve foods. In Europe, the Middle East, and Asia, before the days of refrigeration, spices were used to preserve meats, fish, bread, and vegetables. Spices were used alone or in combination with smoking, salting, and pickling to inhibit food spoilage. The Romans preserved fish sauce with dill, mint, and savory, and meats and sausages with cumin and coriander. The Greeks used garlic to prevent food spoilage, and in India, ginger, garlic, clove, and turmeric were used to preserve meats and fish. In ancient Egypt, cinnamon, cumin, and thyme were used in mummification. Spices are still used to preserve food in the villages of India, Africa, Indonesia, and Thailand.

Spices have also been used for bactericidal and health reasons. During the Middle Ages, spices such as cinnamon, garlic, and oregano were used to treat cholera and other infectious diseases. In the late nineteenth century, clove, mustard, and cinnamon were shown to have antimicrobial activity. In the twentieth century, new research on spices, including ginger, garlic, fenugreek, coriander, turmeric, and clove, as potential natural antimicrobials, continued. Today this research continues.

Aldehydes, sulfur, terpenes and their derivatives, phenols, and alcohols, exhibit strong antimicrobial activity. Spices have strong, moderate, or slight inhibitory activity against specific bacteria (Table 8). Cornell University studies have reported that garlic, oregano, onion, and allspice kill all bacteria; thyme, cinnamon, tarragon, and cumin kill up to 80% of bacteria; chilies up to 75% of bacteria; and black and white peppers, ginger, anise, and celery seed up to 25%. Kansas State University studies have reported that clove, cinnamon, oregano, and sage suppress growth of Escherichia coli O157:H7 in uncooked meats, which causes gastrointestinal disease. Other recent studies have shown that dodecenal in coriander leaf and seed kills Salmonella in meats.

A combination of spices can be more effective as preservatives than one spice. Microorganisms differ in their susceptibility to specific spices. Gram-positive bacteria are more sensitive to spices than gram-negative bacteria. Bacillus(B) subtilis and Staphylococcus(S) aureus are more susceptible than Eschrichia (E) coli bacteria. Certain spices can act as broad-spectrum antimicrobials, such as rosemary and sage, while others are very specific in their functions, such as allspice and coriander.

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