When it comes to food safety and quality, there are two critical measurements that all food manufacturers should take: moisture content and water activity. That being said, while both measurements might sound similar, they are NOT the same, nor are they interchangeable. Moisture content and water activity are measured for two different purposes, and each reveals their own insights about the yield, quality, and safety of your foods. Even if water activity is your primary concern, accurate moisture content analysis is essential in meeting the established standard, and it’s crucial that you understand the measurements for each.
To help clear up the confusion between moisture content and water activity, this post will explain the differences and the importance of each measurement:
Also known as water content, moisture content is a measurement of the total amount of water contained in a food and is usually expressed as a percentage of the total weight (see calculation below). It’s a useful measurement for determining the dry weight of your food and ingredients, and can help calculate your total yield. It can also be used to confirm whether or not the drying process of your foods is finished.
Because the cost of many raw materials is based upon weight, manufacturers often try to use as much water as possible while staying within the legal limits. By performing a simple moisture content test on incoming raw ingredients, you can ensure that you aren’t overpaying for free water. Likewise, your food’s moisture content will have a direct effect on the way your food is processed, mixed, and dried, and will also impact the mouthfeel, appearance, and texture of the final product. Excess moisture can make your product runnier than desired, and can also cause clumping in dry mixes. To help give you a better idea of the moisture content of your ingredients, here’s a short list of the approximate moisture content of some common foods:
|Bread (commercially prepared)||36|
While moisture content simply defines the amount of water in your food and ingredients, water activity defines how the water in your food will react with microorganisms. The higher the water activity, the faster microorganisms like bacteria, yeast, and mold will be able to grow – resulting in higher standards of food storage. Water activity is calculated by finding the ratio of the vapor pressure in food to the vapor pressure of pure water (see calculation below), and is primarily used to determine the necessary food storage requirements and shelf life of your products.
When you calculate water activity, you aren’t measuring the amount of water in a food; you’re actually measuring the “excess” amount of water that’s available for microorganisms to use. Every microorganism has a minimum and optimal water activity for growth, and it’s important that food manufacturers understand those cutoffs in order to control the growth of pathogens and prevent spoilage. Looking at the chart below, you’ll see the different types of microorganisms that are able to grow in a given water activity range:
If your food has a water activity range above .85, your foods will have to be refrigerated or use another barrier in order to control the growth of pathogens. If your food has a water activity range between .60 and .85, your food does not require refrigeration, but will have a limited shelf-life due to yeasts and molds. Finally, if your food has a water activity below .60, it will have an extended shelf-life, even without refrigeration. Food manufacturers can employ several tactics such as drying, freezing, or adding solutes like salt or sugar to help reduce their products’ water activity levels, and extend their shelf life.
Measuring Moisture Content and Water Activity
With both measurements being critical to your foods’ safety and quality, it’s important for food manufacturers to have accurate, reliable calculations for each. Unfortunately, there aren’t many instruments that can do both well. In order to make sure that your products have the optimal levels of moisture content and water activity, food manufacturers should use a Kett moisture meter and a separate water activity analyzer to ensure that your foods are within their established specs. You can even use our moisture meter to identify the end point of your drying method to help reach your desired water activity levels. As many customers have told us, by using an instant analyzer, they are able to always maximize their moisture content (yield) while never failing a water activity test.
Want to learn more? Download our free eBook for helpful tips on finding the perfect instrument for measuring the moisture content and water activity levels in your foods.
if you'd like to speak with one of our application engineers on how we can provide both measurements simultaneously, without sample alteration, click here