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Role of water and water activity

in foods
Importance of water in foods
• The shelf-life of foods is limited by the activity of

• Food preservation operations such as concentration,

dehydration and freezing reduce the availability of
water to microbiological activity.

• Other preservation processes like adding solutes (sugars

or salts) also reduce the availability of water to

• Water also has a profound influence on the physical and

chemical processes, which influence shelf life.

• However, extensive studies on food properties and

reactions in foods have established that water
content as such (per se) is not an adequate
predictor of food stability.
Significance of water activity
• The concept of water activity (aw) is more than 50 years
• William James Scott showed in 1953 that microorganisms
have a limiting aw level for growth.
• It is now generally accepted that aw is more closely related
to the microbial, chemical, and physical properties of
foods than is total moisture content.
• Next to temperature, aw is considered one of the most
important parameters in food preservation and
processing (van den Berg 1986).
• The aw of a food describes the energy status of the water
in that food, which is an indicator of the availability of
water to act as a solvent and participate in the
chemical/bio-chemical reactions.
• Water activity determines the shelf-life of the product.
• Aw affects the enzyme activity and stability of foods. Most
enzymatic reactions are slowed down at water
activities below 0.8.
• Aw also affects the stability, flow and caking of milk powder
and other powdery food materials during storage.
• Aw also affects the textural properties of foods.
• Water activity is defined by:
aw =P/Pw
where P =equilibrium partial vapour pressure of water
in food at a given temperature

Pw= vapor pressure of pure water at the same


Thus, water activity is a thermodynamic entity.

Approximate water activities of selected dairy products
Product Aw at 25ºC
Dried milk products 0.1-0.3
Butter, unsalted 0.99
Butter, salted 0.91-0.93
Sweetened condensed milk 0.77-0.85
Hard cheese 0.86-0.97
Soft cheese 0.96-0.98
Cream 0.99
Frozen desserts 0.98-0.99
Fermented milk products 0.97-0.99
Milk and whey 1.0
Khoa/Pedha 0.96
Paneer 0.99
Kunda 0.86
Food Stability Diagram

Figure. Food stability map

(Adopted from Barbosa-Cánovas et al 2007)
• The effects of aw on growth of microorganisms and food
stability can be described using “stability maps” showing
relative rates of deteriorative changes against aw.

• It is obvious that water is required for the growth of

microorganisms in addition to required environmental
parameters and nutrients.

• It is evident that some reactions exhibit extremely low rates at

low water activities, but their rates increase above a
critical aw as diffusion becomes enhanced.

• However, the reaction rates decrease at high water activities,

possibly as a result of dilution.

• These reactions also are affected by the glass transition of

amorphous foods because the molecular mobility is
affected by the glass transition.
• Food stability maps also can relate glass transition-
dependent changes with aw.

• However, the rates of glass transition-dependent changes

are affected by food composition rather than the
presence the presence of moisture.

• They may occur with no water present in the solids or at

water activities corresponding to the critical aw of the
particular material.

• This Tg-water sorption plot is useful for the selection

of storage conditions for low- and intermediate-
moisture foods.

• Therefore, it is essential to establish the stability maps

showing critical values for aw allowing sufficient
molecular mobility to result in structural transformation,
increased rates of deteriorative reactions and
component crystallization.
Minimal Aw requirement for multiplication of microorganisms
Aw Bacteria Yeasts Molds
0.97-0.98 Clostridium botulinum, Pseudomonas - -
0.96 Lactobacillus, Proteus, - -
Flavobacterium, Shigella
0.95 Clostridium perfrigens, Enterobacter, - -
Escherichia, Salmonella
0.94 Bacillus, Microbacterium, - Stachybotrys
0.93 B. stearothermophilus, Micrococcus - Botrytis, Mucor
0.92 - Saccharomyces -
0.90 B. subtilis, Staphylococcus aureus
0.88 - Candida Cladosporium
0.86 S. Aureus (aerobic), Vibrio Hansenula, -

0.84 - - Alternaria, Aspergillus

0.83 Staphylococcus Debaryomyces Pencillium
0.75 Halobacterium, Halococcus Aspergillus
0.70 - - Aspergillus
0.62 - Saccharomyces Eurotium

0.61 - - Monascus
Adopted from the compendium on “Advances in packaging of dairy and food products”, NDRI, Karnal.