Those Darned Chemicals

You know, I get curious when I get a whiff that there is a bit of fuss going on over nothing.

Or if the fuss isn’t exactly over nothing, it is out of proportion with the cause of the ruckus.

After I read the article about the “thirty-eight synthetic chemicals” that the USDA is thinking of permanently allowing in processed foods labelled “USDA Certified Organic,” and found that while two of them are labelled by the USDA as “synthetic” they are created through partially natural processes or are chemically indistinguishable from naturally derived chemicals, I got to wondering about the other chemicals that a bunch of organic consumers are so het up about.

So, I looked all over Organic Consumer Association website to see if I could find a list of the thirty-eight offending synthetic food additives, and found nada.


Just general references to those pesky “thirty-eight synthetic chemicals.”

You know, it seems to me, that before one gets mad about something, one should have a clear understanding of exactly what it is one is tweaked over. It just seems responsible. So, I found it odd that the OCA didn’t have a list or a link to a list of these thirty-eight secret herbs and spices, I mean, chemicals, that are currently allowed in Certified Organic foods. I mean, if the OCA really wanted to educate consumers about what they are putting into their bodies, you’t think they’d put the list right out there, along with an explanation, in mostly plain English, of just what is so objectionable about all of those food additives.

But this is not the case.

So, I went to the USDA, and lo and behold, found a list of the food additives, both synthetic and non-synthetic, that are both allowed and disallowed in the processing of foods labelled as “USDA Certified Organic.”

And I decided to post the list of the “Black Thirty-Eight” (actually only thirty five, but who is keeping count besides me?) here, and then do a little research on what exactly these chemicals are, what they are used for, and how they are made. Just glancing at the list, I did see that many additives have very specific specifications on how and when they are used in the processing of organic foods, and in the cases of both synthetic and non-synthetic additives, it is obvious to me that some thought has gone into the decision-making process and at no time was carte blanche given to the food processors to just put whatever they want in foods labelled as “organic.”

In point of fact, several additives are allowed for use -only- in foods that are labelled, “made with organic ingredients,” which is not the same thing as “USDA Certified Organic,” which tells me that while the OCA may not agree with how the National Organic Standards Board has done its job, I feel that the board is doing its best to keep the federal organic label as meaningful, and yet make it possible for food processors to create diverse products for the growing consumer interest in organic goods.

Again, I say this: if the addition of these products disturbs anyone, then perhaps they should rethink their support for processed foods of any sort, and should only consume foods that come to them in as unprocessed a state as possible.

At any rate, here is the list of food additives. In a series of posts, I will go through each additive on the list, giving all the information I can find on the use of it in food processing, how it is derived, and any possible harmful side effects of it. This series will be posted over days–I have no idea how many days, and will be supplemented by my usual, more colorful and entertaining posts.

When I am done with my annotations, perhaps I will take a look at the non-synthetic food additives–the ones which are apparently okay with the OCA, and see what they are used for and from what they are derived.

If nothing else, this should remind me of the chemistry classes I took umpteen years ago, and why I found them to be so fascinating, if somewhat difficult.

Of great use to me in this research is a list of food additives on the Nutrition Data website,
and Wikipedia.


The List:

ammonium bicarbonate
ammonium carbonate
ascorbic acid
calcium citrate
calcium hydroxide
calcium phosphates
carbion dioxide
hydrogen peroxide
iron (ferrous sulfate)
lethicin, bleached
magnesium carbonate
magnesium chloride
magnesium stearate
mono- and diglycerides
nutrient minerals
nutrient vitamins
pectin, low-methoxy
phosphoric acid
potassium acid tartrate
potassium citrate
potassium hydroxide
potassium iodide
potassium phosphate
silicon dioxide
sodium citrate
sodium hydroxide
sodium phosphate
sulphur dioxide
xanthan gum

You will note that there are actually only thirty five chemicals on that list.

That is because a couple of the chemicals are listed twice, because they have been examined more than once and the regulations on them have changed slightly and the USDA makes note of that.

Apparently, reporters cannot figure that out.

Now that the list is out of the way, here are the first six synthetic chemical food additives that are currently and may be permanently allowed to be used in processing USDA certified organic food.

Annotated List of Allowable Food Additives:

Alginates are linear copolymers (a specific kind of polymer, or long chain of molecules made up from structural units and repeating units strung together by chemical bonds) which form gums or gels. Commercially, these are derived from algae or bacteria, both of which are naturally ocurring lifeforms. Alginates are used to thicken food products such as soups and salad dressings, and are used in the pharmaceutical industry in the production of antacids.

Ammonium bicarbonate has been covered in my previous post on the subject, but I want to note that the USDA has allowed its use -only- as a leavening agent–this use has been determined safe by the FDA. Similarly, the use of the related compound, ammonium carbonate in the production of organic food products has been limited to use as a leavening agent. Interestingly, ammonium carbonate used to be derived from organic compounds such as hair, urine and horn–hence the old name of “salt of hartshorn.”

Ascorbic acid, also known as vitamin C, is allowed to be used in any way in the production of organic foods. An antioxidant, ascorbic acid is used to help preserve processed foods and to boost the nutrient value of them; humans are one of the few animals incapable of producing our own vitamin c–a nutrient necessary to maintain life. It is found in many plant and animal sources including citrus fruits, peppers, tomatoes, broccoli, potatoes, papaya, calf liver, oysters and cod roe. It is synthesized from glucose–a natural sugar.

Calcium citrate is the calcium salt of citric acid. (A salt is a ionic compound composed of positively charged ions and negatively charged anions with a crystalline molecular structure which has a neutral charge.) It is used as a preservative, and because it is both sour and salty, as a flavor enhancer. Studies have shown that calcium citrate dietary supplements may be better absorbed by the body than calcium carbonate to prevent bone density loss. It also may increase aluminum toxicity in people with kidney problems.

Calcium hydroxide has been used in food processing for thousands of years by Native Americans who used it (sometimes in the form of wood ashes) in the production of posole, nixtamal or what we would now call masa. It is used to loosen and remove the outer hull of corn kernels, and in the process, renders more of the grain’s protein and vitamins available for absorbtion. This treatment of corn makes the grain more nutritious, allowing people to use it as a staple protein source. Without such treatment, those who eat corn as a staple food often develop the serious disease pellagra, which is a deficiency in niacin. It is still used to create posole or masa, and is also used in the production of sodas and some alcoholic beverages.

That is it for today. Look for a continuation of “Those Darned Chemicals” tomorrow, when you will hear Barbara say, “Doesn’t anyone study chemistry in college anymore?”

And then you will hear Zak say, “Are you still going on about those darned chemicals?”

And Morganna will say, “Mom, what’s for dinner?”


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  1. Sheesh, what a list! Oh, their ignorance! Most of them are totally harmless, if not downright beneficial. I’m so glad my mother taught me to read labels when I was a teenager, and that I started learning about basic ingredients then. You’re doing a real educational service here!

    Comment by Dakiwiboid — October 4, 2005 #

  2. Thanks, Kiwiboid. I am doing this because a warning bell got rung for me in this fracas over the synthetic chemicals.

    And so I dug a little deeper, and found stuff that any journalist, or member of the Organic Consumer Association could find out and either use in a news story or post to their websites.

    And as I dig, I find things like vitamin C on a list of “synthetic” additives which are putting organic conusmer advocates in a tizzy. This makes me wonder two things. One, what is the USDA’s definition of “synthetic” and its opposite, “non-synethetic?” And, two: do the folks at OCA and the journalists and alternative media outlets which are spreading this story (Alternet, Common Dreams, and Salon, to name a few) have a clue what chemicals they are riling everyone up about?

    My guess is this–they don’t.

    I really hate to feel myself coming down on the side of the USDA and the Organic Trade Association on this issue–good lord, I am siding with the gummint and big money, but good lord–if anyone is hiding facts in this case, it is the OCA and the media.

    And that weirds me out.

    So, well, look for another installment tomorrow.

    And the next day. And the next. Until I go through the entire list of Those Darned Chemicals.

    Comment by Barbara Fisher — October 4, 2005 #

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