Multi-syllable ingredients and chemophobia
In consumers’ minds the terms ‘clean label’ and ‘natural’ mean ‘safe’, but this simply isn’t correct.
Food safety depends on combinations of the intrinsic factors (pH, salt, sugar, preservatives) and food manufacturers who change, reduce or eliminate any of these factors in the quest for a ‘clean label’ must consider if they are increasing risk of food poisoning and/or reducing the shelf life of their product.
Right across the food and beverage processing industry manufacturers are reformulating their products to be clean label to make their product appeal to health- and sustainability-conscious consumers.
This activity is in response to popular memes like ‘Don’t eat anything your grandmother couldn’t pronounce’ and ‘Don’t eat anything containing unpronounceable substances’. But this anti multi-syllable chemophobia could be laying the groundwork for some food safety disasters.
Think about the standard antimicrobials like potassium sorbate and sodium benzoate. In acidic foods they have safely functioned as effective preservatives for many years where they have not only prevented mould and yeast growth but been effective against Listeria, Salmonella and other harmful bacteria.
In fact food preservatives have probably saved more lives than antibiotics.
It is somewhat weird to look at where the clean label reformulation is taking us. Researchers are looking for natural sources of existing preservatives.
Celery extract, which is high in nitrate, is being used as an alternative to nitrite in some cured meats. However, to be effective the nitrate must be bacterially converted to nitrite. It is much more difficult to control nitrite levels when it’s produced bacteriologically rather than synthesised in a laboratory. Premature spoilage has occurred because of insufficient nitrite in uncured processed meat.
Natural sources of benzoates are around. Benzoic acid is present in tomatoes, apples, blueberries and many vegetables but extracting sufficient quantities to replace the synthetic chemical would dramatically increase the cost only to produce exactly the same chemical.
Really the consumer needs to be educated about food safety rather than simply respond with antipathy to any words they don’t understand. How to achieve this is, however, a mystery.
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