Mode of antimicrobial action of vanillin against Escherichia coli, Lactobacillus plantarum and Listeria innocua

J Appl Microbiol. 2004;97(1):104-13. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2672.2004.02275.x.


Aims: To investigate the mode of action of vanillin, the principle flavour component of vanilla, with regard to its antimicrobial activity against Escherichia coli, Lactobacillus plantarum and Listeria innocua.

Methods and results: In laboratory media, MICs of 15, 75 and 35 mmol l(-1) vanillin were established for E. coli, Lact. plantarum and L. innocua, respectively. The observed inhibition was found to be bacteriostatic. Exposure to 10-40 mmol l(-1) vanillin inhibited respiration of E. coli and L. innocua. Addition of 50-70 mmol l(-1) vanillin to bacterial cell suspensions of the three organisms led to an increase in the uptake of the nucleic acid stain propidium iodide; however a significant proportion of cells still remained unstained indicating their cytoplasmic membranes were largely intact. Exposure to 50 mmol l(-1) vanillin completely dissipated potassium ion gradients in cultures of Lact. plantarum within 40 min, while partial potassium gradients remained in cultures of E. coli and L. innocua. Furthermore, the addition of 100 mmol l(-1) vanillin to cultures of Lact. plantarum resulted in the loss of pH homeostasis. However, intracellular ATP pools were largely unaffected in E. coli and L. innocua cultures upon exposure to 50 mmol l(-1) vanillin, while ATP production was stimulated in Lact. plantarum cultures. In contrast to the more potent activity of carvacrol, a well studied phenolic flavour compound, the extent of membrane damage caused by vanillin is less severe.

Conclusions: Vanillin is primarily a membrane-active compound, resulting in the dissipation of ion gradients and the inhibition of respiration, the extent to which is species-specific. These effects initially do not halt the production of ATP.

Significance and impact of the study: Understanding the mode of action of natural antimicrobials may facilitate their application as natural food preservatives, particularly for their potential use in preservation systems employing multiple hurdles.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adenosine Triphosphate / analysis
  • Anti-Bacterial Agents / pharmacology*
  • Benzaldehydes / pharmacology*
  • Cell Membrane / drug effects
  • Escherichia coli / drug effects*
  • Extracellular Space / metabolism
  • Flow Cytometry
  • Hydrogen-Ion Concentration
  • Intracellular Fluid / metabolism
  • Lactobacillus / drug effects*
  • Listeria / drug effects*
  • Microbial Sensitivity Tests
  • Oxygen Consumption / drug effects
  • Potassium / analysis


  • Anti-Bacterial Agents
  • Benzaldehydes
  • Adenosine Triphosphate
  • vanillin
  • Potassium