Finally–I have come to the end of the list of those dreadful, evil, awful synthetic chemicals that are allowed to dirty up all of our processed USDA Certified Organic foods.
Throughout the duration of this series, I have received emails from various left-leaning organizations, urging me to call my congressfolk over this issue and raise hell until the synthetics are banished and then there will be peace and love and happiness for the rest of eternity. Or, well, until the next thing ruffles our leftist feathers and we go off yammering to the congressfolk on yet another cause.
None of those emails gave any substantive information on what exactly those additives were and what we should be cheesed off about–all I got were the standard phrases, “synthetic chemicals,” “bowing to pressure from agribusiness corporations,” “big food corporations,” and “lowering government organic standards.”
None of the news stories I have read over the ‘net have been any more substantive than the oft-repeated Grist article I posted at the beginning of this series.
I find this to be dismaying, because I rather dislike the “follow the herd” mentality that seems to be in operation here. It certainly pisses me off a lot more than having some lecithin in my yogurt or low-methoxy pectin in my low-sugar jelly.
So, here is the deal with this post.
I am going to post the entire annotated list, all in one place, just so it is a more useful resource for people who might be curious about the additives in question.
Then, I am going to do a quick and dirty analysis of what I think of the list as a whole and a few items in specific. I want to stress that this is my opinion as someone who has studied culinary arts, nutrition and biology, formally and informally, for many years. I am not a medical doctor, a nutritionist or a biochemist, so take what I say not as the “gospel truth,” but as the opinion of an informed layperson. (And even if I did have a couple of PhD’s after my name, I still wouldn’t want you to take anything I say as “gospel truth,” because if there is one thing I learned as a journalist it is this–everyone has a natural bias built into themselves. No one has access to the complete and whole truth about any subject, no matter how prestigious their scholarly pedigree may be.)
So, without further ado, here is the complete list.
Annotated List of Synthetic Food Additives Allowed in USDA Certified Organic Foods
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 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. (Masa is used in the making of corn chips and corn tortillas.)
Calcium phosphates (di-, mono- and tri-)are mineral salts found in teeth and bones, and are also often found as naturally occurring rock in various Middle Eastern countries. As a food additive it is used as a leavening agent, oxidizing agent, yeast food, nutritional supplement, anti-caking ingredient, and dough conditioner. Dough conditioners are ingredients used to help make yeast doughs rise higher and lighter–they contain carbohydrate yeast foods which help the yeast multiply more rapidly and produce more carbon dioxide, and they are particularly useful to make whole grain breads rise up light and airy as opposed to heavy and leaden. Dough conditioners often contain calcium and oxidizing agents, which helps strengthen the dough. Dough conditioners are often used by commercial bakeries in Europe and are becoming more commonly accepted in American bakeries; it is sold to American home bakers under the name of Lora Brody, a well-known cooking instructor. (I have a couple of cans of it myself and have used it frequently.)
A naturally occurring gas, carbon dioxide is part of the Earth’s atmosphere, and is used in food production to add bubbles to beverages, (a process called strangely enough, carbonation) and as a packing gas. It is utilized in packing fresh produce in sealed environments; in keeping out the oxygen, it limits the potential for oxidization, wilting and decomposition of such fragile produce as salad greens. There are two listings for carbon dioxide in the NOSB database–one for natural carbon dioxide and another for synthesized version; chemically, the two are identical in form and function, and chemically speaking, are indistinguishable.
Chlorine is used in the food industry as a bleaching agent for flour, and oxidizing agent and as a preservative, however, the NOSB allows its use in USDA Certified Organic products only as a disinfectant for food processing equipment, and only if residual chlorine levels on the equipment do not exceed the maximum residual disinfectant limit under the Safe Drinking Water Act. Chlorine is present in all public municipal drinking water systems where it is used as an anti-microbial agent.
Ethylene has been covered in my first post on this subject, but I will reiterate that it is a gaseous plant hormone that is emitted by various fruits and vegetables as a natural part of the fruit-ripening process and is used to ripen fruits while they are in storage. Bananas will not ripen off the tree without application of ethylene gas; ethylene that is produced naturally by a fruit, or in a laboratory, are chemically indistinguishable.
Glycerine is a naturally occurring substance in the human body, where it is known as glycerol; it is an important component of triglycerides, a component of body fat. When body fat is burned as fuel, glycerol is released into the bloodstream; it is then converted into glucose by liver and is burned for energy. In food products, it is most often used as binder, a humectant (an agent which is helps retain moisture) and as a solvent. Glycerine can be produced from animal fat or vegetable oils, and is the by-product of saponification, which is the reaction between a base and a fat which produces soap. It is also a by-product of the creation of biodiesel: a form of fuel that is derived from vegetable oils and is used as an alternative to petrochemicals.
Hydrogen peroxide is commonly used as a hair bleach and in low concentrations in medical applications such as disinfection, wound cleaning and debriding, and as a household cleaner. In food production, it is used as preservative, though I cannot find any information on exactly how it functions chemically in that capacity. Although sufficient quantities of food-grade (35%) hydrogen peroxide can be fatal when ingested, it is sometimes used in alternative medicine to treat various health issues. NOSB has allowed the use of hydrogen peroxide without restriction in the production of USDA Certified Organic foods. Hydrogen peroxide breaks down into water and oxygen, which leaves no dangerous pollutants after it has been used to sterilize something–unlike chlorine, which always leaves traces of itself behind.
Iron, in the form of ferrous sulfate, is an ionic compound which is made by the oxidization of pyrite (a naturally occuring mineral) or by treating iron with sulfuric acid. Iron is a necessary nutrient which used to enrich various products as regulated by the federal government (flour and breakfast cereals are among the products mandated to be enriched) as well as products that are recommended for iron enrichment by medical or nutrition professionals.
Bleached lecithin is derived from egg yolks or soybeans, either by a mechanical or chemical process. (Only bleached lecithin is considered synthetic by the NOSB–unbleached lecithin is considered non-synthetic; they are, however, both allowed in USDA Organic Certified foods.) Lecithin is found in all cell walls, and is used as an emulsifier and can be completely metabolized by humans, and is considered to be completely non-toxic. It is widely used in foods and pharmaceuticals that require an emusifying agent (an emulsifying agent is a substance which keeps two unalike liquids–such as vinegar and oil–mixed together) or a lubricant.
Magnesium chloride is only allowed by NOSB as a food additive if it has been derived from sea water; in order to do this, the sodium chloride (table salt) is removed from the solution, and then the water is evaporated. The white powder that is left behind is magnesium chloride, which is called nigari in Japanese. In Japan, it has been used for centuries as a coagulant in the making of tofu from soy milk; the tofu processed in this way has a very smooth and fine texture amd is called silken tofu.
Mono- and diglycerides are esters (an organic compound where an organic group is replaced by a hydrogen atom in an oxygen acid–I know, this probably just turned into mumbo-jumbo) of glycerol and fatty acids. Depending on how many fatty acids esterize with the glycerol, one can have monoglycerides, diglycerides or triglycerides, which are found in animal fats and plant oils. (Including in humans.) Triglycerides, when ingested, are broken down by enzymes into mono- and diglycerides and free fatty acids, which can then be used as energy by the body. In conventional food processing, mono- and di-glycerides are commonly used as emusifliers and humectants–they are what keeps many commercial peanut butters from separating. However, NOSB specifically states that they can only be used in USDA Certified Organic foods in the process of drum-drying of foods.
Nutrient minerals, are chemical elements such as chromium, cobalt, copper, fluorine, iodine, iron, magnesium, manganese, potassium, selenium and zinc, are considered by medical and nutritional professionals to be necessary nutrients for sustaining human life. They are naturally found in the earth and in various plant and animal food sources, and can be derived from these sources or synthesized in various ways. They are allowed by the NOSB in USDA Certified Organic foods as required by federal regulation for enrichment or as recommended by nutritional or medical experts. (Iodized salt is a good example of a food product enriched in order to enhance health; enriched wheat flour is another example.)
Nutrient vitamins, such as vitamin A, the B-complex vitamins, vitamins C, D, E and K, are all organic (meaning, they contain carbon) molecules that are required in very small amounts for humans (and other animals) to thrive. Some are naturally occurring in foods, while others, such as vitamin D, are synthesized in the human body when the skin is exposed to sunlight. Since their discovery in the early twentieth century, vitamins have been used to enrich foods; accordingly the NOSB allows their use to enrich USDA Organic Foods if required by federal regulation or if it is recommended by nutritional or medical professionals.
Ozone consists of three oxygen atoms bound loosely together; it is an unstable molecular formation. A colorless gas at standard room temperature and pressure, is both a powerful oxidant and a corrosive, poisonous pollutant. It can be found in low concentrations naturally in the atmosphere, and it can also be formed from the more prevalant (and breathable) O2 by electrical discharges. (Ozone is that funny smell that is in the air during a big thunderstorm with lots of lightning.) It is also what forms the ozone layer in our upper atmosphere, which shields the earth from harmful ultraviolet radiation from the sun.
In industrial application, ozone is used to sterilize water and food production surfaces, to wash fruits and vegetables and to remove yeast and mold particles from the air. Ozonated water (water into which O3 gas has been dissolved) is used to wash fresh produce. This treatment reduces the bacterial and fungal population on the fruits and vegetables by 90% without leaving behind a residue as chlorine treated water does. Since it is an unstable molecular formation, the byproduct of ozone is oxygen gas, which is most certainly not harmful.
Pectin (low-methoxy) is a naturally occuring heterogenous polysaccharide found in the cell walls of plants. Pectin, both low-methoxy (synthetic) and high-methoxy (non-synthetic) , is used to cause liquids to gel; low methoxy pectin is to make low-acid, low-sugar jellies and preserves, while the non-synthetic high-methoxy pectin is used to make the usual high-sugar fruit preserves, jams and jellies.
Pectin, which naturally occurs in high concentrations in apples and citrus fruits, is nutritionally classified as a water-soluble fiber and considered by health professionals as a necessary part of a healthy diet.
Despite being used for various purposes in conventional food processing, phosphoric acid is allowed by the NOSB to be used only in cleaning food contact surfaces and equipment in the production of USDA Certified Organic Foods. In non-organic food processing, it is used to acidify various products, including popular cola sodas. It is an agricultural chemical, so it is cheap and plentiful, but there is evidence to suggest that drinking large amounts of such beverages may disturb the normal balance of calcium-phosphorus ionic ratio in the bloodstream. When this happens, in order to compensate, the body may metabolize calcium from the bones, resulting in a loss of bone density. The popularity of cola drinks may be a factor in the appearance of increasing numbers of young women and older men with low bone density or osteoporosis.
Potassium acid tartrate, also known as cream of tartar when sold for household use, is generally derived from the acidic tartarate crystals that are a byproduct of wine fermentation. It is used, along with sodium bicarbonate (baking soda) as a leavener in many old recipes; it is also often used to stabilize egg whites when they are beaten into foam. In food processing it is used as the acidic portion of a chemical leavener, and is used as an acidic ingredient and a buffer.
Potassium carbonate is notated by the NOSB to only be used for FDA-approved applications where natural sodium carbonate is not an acceptable substitute. That said, sodium carbonate, or soda ash, is used in the manufacure of monsodium glutamate and soy sauce. (One suspects it is used in the soy sauces that are not naturally fermented.) It is also used as a neutralizing agent.
Potassium citrate is used as a buffer to lower the acidity of foods. It is also used medically to lower the acidity of the urine to prevent the formation of kidney stones, or to treat a potassium deficiency.
Also known as lye, potassium hydroxide is used in the process of saponification, or turning fats into soap. Lye is also used in conventional food production to chemically peel fruits and vegetables, however, this usage is prohibited by the NOSB. However, it is traditionally used in the production of Dutch cocoa, and has been used for centuries in the production of hominy and masa. In this preparation, he outer seed coat of corn is stripped away by soaking the grain in a solution of potassium hydroxide (often in the form of wood ash) or calcium hydroxide and water. After rinsing the corn, the lye is washed away with the seed coat, and the corn is made more digestible and nutritious as more of the protein is available to be metabolized.
Silicon dioxide is a naturally occurring mineral that has seventeen distinct crystalline forms. Examples include quartz and opal, glass or sand. Silicon dioxide is most often used as a water-absorbtive agent and an anti-caking agent in powdered food products so that they will continue to flow freely.
Sodium citrate, like calcium citrate (see above), is the sodium salt of citric acid. Because it is both sour and salty in flavor it is commonly known as “sour salt” (which is also a name that citric acid itself goes by for household use), and it is used commonly as a flavoring agent and preservative in foods. It is used in both club soda and in lemon-lime sodas to give them their sour flavors. In blood collection, it is also used as an anticoagulant. It is most often derived from citric acid , which is a weak acid found in citrus fruits. The process of deriving sodium citrate (which is also used in the formulation of environmentally friendly detergents) from citric acid currently involves a difficult starch-based fermentation process which results in non-environmentally friendly waste products such as heavy-metal contaminated gypsum. Experimentation to create a more ecologically-friendly method of extraction is currently underway.
Both potassium hydroxide and sodium hydroxide are commonly known as lye, or caustic lye, and are both used in similar ways in industry and food processing. Most often, sodium hydroxide is used to make soap, however, it is also commonly used in conventional food processing to do a lye wash or chemical peel on fruits and vegetables. This use, however, is prohibited by the NOSB, so instead, it is more likely to come into use in the processing of raw cocoa into Dutch cocoa.
Dutch cocoa is darker and less acidic than untreated cocoa powder, and it the cocoa most commonly used in baking everywhere around the world, except the United States.
Other uses to which sodium hydroxide is put in food processing include the production of caramel coloring, poultry scalding (this is a process that loosens the feathers so they can be plucked from the carcass more easily) soft drink processing, the softening of olives and the making of the traditional Scandinavian favorite, lutefisk. (If you are wondering, lutefisk is a dried whitefish soaked in lye to soften it.) The NOSB also prohibits the use of sodium hydroxide in any process for which sodium bicarbonate, a harmless substance, can be used instead, such as buffering an acidic product or as a leavening agent.
Sodium phosphates are a group of chemicals used in many capacities in conventional food processing: they are used as buffers, whipping agents, foaming agents, neutralizing agents and dietary supplements. They also are the subject of much contention, and the NOSB has a great deal of documentation regarding these chemicals; the first link given in this annotation is to a lengthy document prepared by the board on the subject of this chemical group, its chemical properties and derivation, and its purposes in food processing. (If you are concerned about this group of chemicals–and make no mistake, some of them are highly toxic substances, then I suggest you read the document–there was no way for me to condense it into any sort of useful one paragraph blurb.)
Currently, the NOSB allows the use of these chemicals only in the production of dairy products where they act as emulsifiers, keeping the fat and protein in cheese from separating out. They are also used as a boiler water additive where it functions as an anti-bacterial, and in the cleaning of food processing equipment. (Some of you may be aware of the use of trisodium phosphate–TSP–as a heavy duty degreaser and cleanser. If you are familiar with it, recall the warnings contained on the instructions on the label of the stuff. )
Tocopherols may be more familiar to the common person by the name of vitamin E, which is a powerful antioxidant in the body, protecting cells from the damaging affects of substances known as free radicals which can cause cellular damage that may result in cancer or cardiovascular disease. These substances are commonly found in foods such as green leafy vegetables, vegetable oils, nuts and wheat germ. In food production, it is used as a preservative, where it delays the degradation of oils and fats into rancidity. It is used in snack foods, cereals and naturally expressed vegetable oils. According to the NOSB, tocopherols must be derived from vegetable oils when rosemary extracts are not a suitable alternative.
Xanthan gum, as noted in my very first commentary regarding this subject, is a polysaccharide (a molecule made up of a chain of simple sugars bound together by glycosidic linkages) that is produced by the fermentation of glucose or sucrose (naturally occurring simple sugars) by the bacteria, Xanthomonas campestris. It is used to increase the viscosity, or thickness of fluids. Very small amounts of it are capable of greatly increasing the viscosity of a given liquid, and it is stable under a wide range of temperatures and pH. It is considered as a safe food additive in both the US and Europe. It is also used to replace gluten in a variety of gluten-free baked goods prepared for the growing number of people who suffer from celiac disease, which is a genetic inability to tolerate gluten.
There it is, folks. The List.
Now, what are my final comments regarding these synthetic chemicals?
The vast majority of them are harmless or beneficial, and are really nothing over which to get one’s knickers in a knot. Many of them are naturally occurring or are derived from natural substances, so while they are technically synthetic, they are not some strange thing purely cooked up in a lab. Some of them have completely non-synthetic versions, which are functionally no different on a molecular level than the synthetic ones.
For example, ascorbic acid, calcium citrate, ferrous sulfate, nutritive minerals, nutritive vitamins, pectin and tocopherols are all beneficial to health. In addition to serving as preservatives, acidifiers, thickeners and flavor enhancers, these additives can enhance the nutritional profile of processed foods.
Others of these chemicals, such as the two different versions of lye, potassium hydroxide and sodium hydroxide, on the face of it, are very dangerous–they are caustic and highly toxic. However, both of these chemicals have a very long history of traditional useage in various cultures in the processing of cocoa, codfish and corn, all without massive loss of human life. This historical use leads me to believe that when used with care in food processing, both potassium hydroxide and sodium hydroxide are likely harmless, and in the case of processing corn, positively beneficial.
Similarly dangerous-sounding chemicals are chlorine, hydrogen peroxide, ozone and phosphoric acid; however, none of these additives are placed directly -into- processed foods themselves. Instead, they are used to clean food processing equipment and raw materials, and are used in water purification.
The only two additives in this entire list which truly trouble me are the sodium phosphates and silicon dioxide. Sodium phosphates bother me because some of them are very toxic, and silicon dioxide bugs me because I don’t really like to think about sand in my food.
However, in general, I trust the NOSB to make sound judgements regarding the safety of the food additives allowed in organic foods, so I realize that my worry about sand in my food is a bit emotional and silly. (Though those sodium phosphates still make me wary.)
My basic feeling is this: so long as American consumers demand that there be organic convenience foods like cold cereals, crisp crackers, fruity yogurt drinks, fizzy natural sodas, macaroni and cheese mixes and bread, and so long as we prefer to eat ripe bananas and tofu, we are going to have to accept some additives in our food. Additives serve a lot of functions which make processed foods edible, tasty and last longer than a day or two. They also help clean processing equipment and keep it free of harmful foodborne bacteria.
So, if we want bacteria-free cereal, tofu, soda, bananas and gluten-free baked goods–we are going to have to have some chemicals in our food.
If you don’t want any of them, then take my advice: don’t eat processed foods.
It is just that simple.
Thus we come to the end of the “Those Darned Chemicals” drama, where you can hear Barbara mutter, “I’d like a drink of ethanol, if you please.”
For more information on the list of both natural and synthetic chemicals allowed by the NOSB in USDA Certified Organic Foods, check out the official list. Also look at their “National List in the Final Rule” page.
To find out what these additives are used for, and for general information on health and nutrition, look at the Nutrition Data Food Additive Finder and the Center for Science in the Public Interest’s list of food additives, as well as their section on food safety issues and nutrition policy.
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