Water activity

Water activity

Water activity or aw is a measurement of the energy status of the water in a system. It is defined as the vapor pressure of water above a sample divided by that of pure water at the same temperature; therefore, pure distilled water has a water activity of exactly one.

There are several factors that control water activity in a system. Colligative effects of dissolved species (e.g. salt or sugar) interact with water through dipole-dipole, ionic, and hydrogen bonds. Capillary effect where the vapor pressure of water above a curved liquid meniscus is less than that of pure water because of changes in the hydrogen bonding between water molecules. Surface interactions in which water interacts directly with chemical groups on undissolved ingredients (e.g. starches and proteins) through dipole-dipole forces, ionic bonds (H3O+ or OH-), van der Waals forces (hydrophobic bonds), and hydrogen bonds. It is a combination of these three factors in a food product that reduces the energy of the water and thus reduces the relative humidity as compared to pure water. These factors can be grouped under two broad categories osmotic and matric effects.

Due to varying degrees of osmotic and matric interactions, water activity describes the continuum of energy states of the water in a system. The water appears “bound” by forces to varying degrees. This is a continuum of energy states rather than a static “boundness”. Water activity is sometimes defined as “free”, “bound”, or “available water” in a system. Although these terms are easier to conceptualize, they fail to adequately define all aspects of the concept of water activity.

Water activity is temperature dependent. Temperature changes water activity due to changes in water binding, dissociation of water, solubility of solutes in water, or the state of the matrix. Although solubility of solutes can be a controlling factor, control is usually from the state of the matrix. Since the state of the matrix (glassy vs. rubbery state) is dependent on temperature, one should not be surprised that temperature affects the water activity of the food. The effect of temperature on the water activity of a food is product specific. Some products increase water activity with increasing temperature, others decrease aw with increasing temperature, while most high moisture foods have negligible change with temperature. One can therefore not predict even the direction of the change of water activity with temperature, since it depends on how temperature affects the factors that control water activity in the food.

As a potential energy measurement it is a driving force for water movement from regions of high water activity to regions of low water activity. For example, if honey (aw ≈ 0.6) is exposed to humid air (aw ≈ 0.7) the honey will absorb water from the air. Other examples of this dynamic property of water activity are; moisture migration in multidomain foods (e.g. cracker-cheese sandwich), the movement of water from soil to the leaves of plants, and cell turgor pressure. Since microbial cells are high concentrations of solute surrounded by semi-permeable membranes, the osmotic effect on the free energy of the water is important for determining microbial water relations and therefore their growth rates.

Higher aw substances tend to support more microorganisms. Bacteria usually require at least 0.91, and fungi at least 0.7. See fermentation.


Definition of aw:: a_w equiv p / p_0 where p is the vapor pressure of water in the substance, and p0 is the vapor pressure of pure water at the same temperature.

Alternate definition:: a_w equiv l_w x_w where lw is the activity coefficient of water and xw is the mole fraction of water in the aqueous fraction.

Relative humidity:: mathrm{RH} = a_w imes 100%

Estimated mold-free shelf life in days at 21° C:: mathrm{MFSL} = 10^{7.91 - 8.1 a_w}

Uses for Water Activity

Water activity is an important consideration for food product design and food safety.

Food Product Design

Food designers use water activity to formulate products that are shelf stable. If a product is kept below a certain water activity, then mold growth is inhibited. This results in a longer shelf-life.

Water activity values can also help limit moisture migration within a food product made with different ingredients. If raisins of a higher water activity are packaged with bran flakes of a lower water activity, the water from the raisins will migrate to the bran flakes over time, resulting in hard raisins and soggy bran flakes. Food formulators use water activity to predict how much moisture migration will affect their product.

In addition, water activity helps limit or slow certain undesirable reactions, such as non-enzymatic browning, fat oxidation, vitamin degradation, enzymatic reactions, protein denaturation, starch gelatinization and starch retrogradation. This too maintains product quality and extends shelf life.

Food Safety

Water activity is used in many cases as a Critical Control Point for Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) programs. Samples of the food product are periodically taken from the production area and tested to ensure that water activity values are within a specified range for food quality and safety. Measurements can be made in as little as five minutes, and are made regularly in most major food production facilities.

For many years researchers tried to equate bacterial growth potential with moisture content. They found that the values were not universal, but specific to each food product. WJ Scott in 1953 first established that it was water activity, not water content that correlated with bacterial growth. It is firmly established that growth of bacteria is inhibited at specific water activity values. FDA regulations for Intermediate Moisture Foods are based on these values.

Lowering the water activity of a food product should not be seen as a kill step. Studies in powdered milk show that viable cells can exist at much lower water activity values but that they will never grow. Over time bacterial levels will decline.

Water Activity Measurement

Water activity values are obtained by either a capacitance or a dew point hygrometer.

Capacitance Hygrometers

Capacitance hygrometers consist of two charged plates separated by a polymer membrane dielectric. As the membrane adsorbs water, its ability to hold a charge increases and the capacitance is measured. This value is roughly proportional to the water activity as determined by a sensor-specific calibration.

Capacitance hygrometers are not affected by most volatile chemicals and can be much smaller than other alternative sensors. They do not require cleaning, but are less accurate than dew point hygrometers (+/- .015 aw). They require regular calibration and can be affected by residual water in the polymer membrane.

Dew Point Hygrometers

The temperature at which dew forms on a clean surface is directly related to the vapor pressure of the air. Dew point hygrometers work by placing a mirror over a closed sample chamber. The mirror is cooled until the dew point temperature is measured by means of an optical sensor. This temperature is then used to find the relative humidity of the chamber using psychrometric charts.

This method is the most accurate (+/- .003 aw) and often the fastest. The sensor requires cleaning if debris accumulates on the mirror...


With either method, vapor equilibrium must occur in the sample chamber. This will take place over time or can be aided by the addition of a fan in the chamber. Thermal equilibrium must also take place unless the sample temperature is measured.

Water Activity and Moisture Content

Water activity is related to moisture content in a non-linear relationship known as a moisture sorption isotherm curve. These isotherms are substance and temperature specific. Isotherms can be used to help predict product stability over time in different storage conditions.

elected aw values

Example Foods

aw Values of Microorganism Inhibition


*Fennema, O.R., Ed. (1985). "Food Chemistry - Second Edition, Revised and Expanded." New York: Marcell Dekker, Inc. pp. 46-50.
* [http://www.decagon.com/food_science/info/chart.php] , 13 April 2008

External links

* [http://www.gardco.com/pages/ph_conductivity/about_water_activity.html Measurement of water activity]
* [http://www.decagon.com/food_science/instrumentation/instruments.php Decagon Water Activity Instruments]
* [http://www.novasina.ch/wEnglisch/Produkte/Wasseraktivitaet/index.php Novasina Water Activity Instruments]
* [http://www.rotronic-usa.com/ Rotronic Water Activity Instruments]
* [http://www.emintech.com/1251test.htm Comparison of Water Activity Meters]

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