The application of essential oils in form of nanoemulsions has been proposed as a method to improve their solubility in aqueous solutions, and hence their antimicrobial activity. The objective of this study was to evaluate the antimicrobial activity of citral, applied directly or in combined treatments with heat or pulsed electric fields (PEF), as a function of the inoculation procedure assayed: (i) a simple, vigorous shaking method by vortex agitation (suspension of citral; s-citral) or (ii) the previous preparation of nanoemulsions by the emulsion phase inversion (EPI) method (nanoemulsion of citral; n-citral). n-Citral was more effective in either inhibiting or inactivating Escherichia coli O157:H7 Sakai than s-citral. However, when combined with heat, a greater synergistic effect was observed with s-citral rather than with n-citral, either in lab media (pH 7·0 and 4·0) or apple juice. For instance, while almost 5 log10 cell cycles were inactivated in apple juice after 15 min at 53°C in the presence of 0·1 μl ml−1 of s-citral, the use of n-citral required 30 min. The use of nanoemulsions did not modify the slight synergism observed when citral and mild PEF were combined (150 μs, 30 kV cm−1).Significance and Impact of the Study
The exploration of different delivery systems of antimicrobial compounds such as citral in aqueous food products aids in the establishment of successful combined treatments for food preservation. While at room temperature, citral in form of a nanoemulsion shows a higher antimicrobial activity; its combination with heat would imply a partial loss of the outstanding synergistic lethal effect achieved when added in suspension form. Therefore, the most suitable procedure to magnify the synergism between heat and citral when processing juices would merely require an intense homogenization step prior to the combined treatment.