Blog Directory - Blogged foodliterate: March 2008

Sunday, March 30, 2008

As I Recall

There has been quite a lot of news concerning food recalls in the past few years topped off by last week's cantaloupe (it's really a muskmelon) recall for Salmonella contamination. Those of us in the food industry tend to keep up-to-date on recalls, but I wondered how much anyone else knows or understands about them.

A recall is a voluntary removal of product from the market; it could be due to contamination, adulteration, or misbranding. You noticed I said voluntary? Yep, these are voluntary actions taken by the manufacturer; the law doesn't authorize the FDA or USDA to order a recall, but I'll explain that in more detail in a bit. Depending on the food in question, it will fall under the jurisdiction of the USDA or FDA. Meat, poultry and most egg products belong to the FSIS (Food Safety and Inspection Service) division of the USDA, all other food products belong to the FDA (along with animal feed, vet supplies, medical devices, human drugs & cosmetics). The process for recalls and the recall levels are essentially the same for both agencies. They rank from least severe to most severe as follows:
  • Market Withdrawal - minor violation not subject to legal action
  • Class III - exposure to violative product is not likely to cause adverse health consequences (Examples: mold, yeast, off-flavor, leaking container)
  • Class II - exposure to violative product may cause temporary or medically reversible health consequence or where serious health consequence is remote (Examples: hard or sharp object 7m - 25mm in size, Staphlococcus, unapproved color added)
  • Class I - exposure to violative product has reasonable probability of causing adverse health consequence or death (Examples: botulinum toxin, Salmonella, Listeria, undeclared allergens present)

The Class I recalls are the ones you see, hear, and read about in the news, but all recalls are posted; the FDA recalls can be found here and FSIS recalls can be found here. Although the press often reports that the FDA 'ordered' a recall, as I stated before, the truth is recalls are almost always initiated by the company who calls the FDA and explains the issue.

Recalls can be requested by the FDA (or USDA) who may find a problem during an inspection or after receiving a report of a problem from a consumer or the CDC (Center for Disease Control). If a company does not recall a product on their own the FDA can ask a judge for the right to have a U.S. Marshall seize the product and/or issue an injunction against the company to stop the production or distribution of the product. Believe me, it is very rare for a company to refuse to recall a product after notification of a problem from the FDA. No company wants to have defective material out in the marketplace. Even voluntary recalls have put companies out of business - just imagine what the press would be like for a company who refused a recall!

There are strict guidelines for companies to follow concerning recall procedures outlined in the Code of Federal Regulations, which those so inclined can find here. What is important to know & understand is that there are rules in place for how a company handles a recall and what information is shared with both the FDA and the public at large. It is also important to know that the FDA (and yes USDA) follows-up on all recalls to make sure that the recalled product is accounted for and properly disposed. The FDA also makes sure a corrective-action has taken place so they and the company know how & why the problem occurred. I'll talk a bit more about what programs companies have in place to avoid a recall next week, but for those who are interested in food safety, this is a cool blog from the International Food Safety Network to tide you over!

Friday, March 21, 2008

This is Eggcelent

Wow this Sunday is Easter; its hard to believe how early it is this year. So, let me get right to this week's topic - Eggs. Christians are not the only ones who have ties to the egg during this season; Jews and Persians also use eggs as symbols during the spring. The egg symbolizes new life, a new beginning. It is why it is used to symbolize the resurrection of Jesus on Easter, new life and the Passover sacrifice at the Passover Seder, and the new year which begins at the spring equinox during Persian Nowrooz. Given that the egg holds such a place of honor, I thought it deserving of a little blog time.

The egg is a marvel of engineering, not to mention a pretty amazing piece of nutrition. Let's start from the inside out. The yolk, as the source of nutrition in a fertilized egg for the developing chick, is a rich source of calories from fat, iron, phosphorous, calcium, vitamin A, some of the vitamin Bs, and vitamin D. It also contains lecithin, a natural emulsifier. The yolk is suspended inside the egg by the chalazae - the opaque white "ropes" you see in the egg whites. The egg whites are more correctly termed the albumin (from the latin albus meaning white) and are not homogeneous. There are four alternating layers of thick and thin albumin and there are multiple proteins that comprise the egg albumin. These different albumin proteins all have different coagulation temperatures, which we will get back to in a bit. Between the albumin and the shell are two membranes and between those two membranes is an air cell. Last but not least is the shell, a mix of calcium carbonate, magnesium carbonate and calcium phosphate. While it looks solid, it actually has around 17,000 pores which make it semi-permeable and allow air and moisture to migrate in and out of the shell.

But before you can decorate all of those eggs for Easter, you'll have to hard-cook them. You'll notice I didn't say hard-boil them, that is because boiling eggs is a really bad idea. The different albumin proteins start to coagulate (cook) at 145°F with the last proteins coagulating at 183°F and the yolk coagulates around 160-165 °F, so the boiling temperature of 212°F is way too high. Boiling will over cook both the albumin, causing the whites to be tough and rubbery, and the yolk causing it to be dry and mealy. The temperature of the water should never be above a bubble-less simmer of 180-185°F and the eggs, depending on their size, should not need to be cooked for more than 10-15 minutes.

I also recommend starting your cooking with room temperature eggs placed into cold water and adding salt and a teaspoon to tablespoon (depends on how many eggs you are cooking) of vinegar. The salt & vinegar help to coagulate any albumin that may leak out of hairline cracks in the shell and help to prevent the green-gray ring that sometimes is seen around the yolk. That ring happens when the hydrogen sulfide gas (produced from the sulfur in the amino acids) from the albumin reacts with the iron in the yolk to create ferrous sulfide. Adjusting the pH of the solution of the water via the vinegar reduces the production of the hydrogen sulfide gas, and thus the potential for the green ring. The last thing is getting them immediately into a bowl of ice water once they are done cooking; keep them immersed in the ice water, adding more ice if necessary, for 15-20 minutes. This will both help prevent the green ring, and shrink the cooked egg away from the shell so they are easier to peel. Once you have your hard-cooked eggs, they should be refrigerated, where they will last easily for one week.

I hope you enjoyed this piece on the egg, and that whatever holiday you celebrate in the spring, that it is wonderful and an expression of the bounties of life that make this time of year so special!

Sunday, March 16, 2008

What Could Be Sweeter? Dolci

So I've spent the last few weeks discussing five FDA approved non-nutrative, high intensity sweeteners, but there are other products out there. Some are approved, some are natural, some are in the works and all are pretty interesting.

Lets start with cyclamate - this is one some of you may remember or those in Canada may still be using. Cyclamate is 30-40 times sweeter than sugar and is banned from use in the US. It essentially has the same issues as saccharin, namely bladder cancer in rats. As it has come to light that the mechanism that causes the cancer doesn't exist in humans, there is a push to once again approve this sweetener for use. The National Cancer Institute has even joined the petition to the FDA to reinstate this product and plenty of other countries, including Canada, have been using this sweetener for years. However, given that so many new higher intensity sweeteners exist, it is hard to say whether anyone would use cyclamate in anything other than tabletop (packet) applications. FYI - while the US banned cyclamate, Canada banned saccharin & both countries are looking at revoking the bans.

Alitame was developed in the 1980's and is 2000 times sweeter than sugar with no aftertaste. It is a cousin to aspartame & neotame in that it is a dipeptide that contains aspartic acid. Its stability is somewhere between acesulfame K and aspartame and it does not contain phenylalanine so it is safe for use by those who suffer from PKU. Alitame's other amino acid is alanine (hence its name) with an attached amine. The FDA has been petitioned to approve alitame, but that approval process is still on going. As a protein it does contain calories, but due to its low usage rate, the calories are negligible.

Tagatose is a naturally occuring monosaccharide found in dairy products. It is a low calorie, nutrative sweetener. What is particularly interesting about this product is that while it is 92% as sweet as sugar, it only has 38% of the calories. It is GRAS (generally recognized as safe) with the FDA and was approved for general use in 2003. It has minimal effect on blood glucose/insulin levels (good for diabetics) and is non-cariogenic and anti-plaque (good for your teeth). Tagatose is also has pre-biotic properties which means it is good for the bacteria in your gut and some research suggests that it may help fight against colon cancer. It is going to be hard to find because while it does occur naturally in very small quantities, commercial production requires the conversion of lactose to glucose & galactose then to tagatose. Let's keep our fingers crossed that a cost effective way to make this product is discovered.

Thaumatin is another rather strange sweetener. It is a naturally occuring mixture of proteins, as opposed to the aspartame/neotame/alitame family, that comes from the African serendipity berry, Thaumatococcus daniellii. It is extremely heat stable and is 2000 times sweeter than sugar. Thaumatin's sweetness can be detected by your tongue at levels below one part per million! Most intersting, at least to me, is that much of the research on the crystalization of this sweetner was done on the space shuttle Columbia in 1996 by NASA. Thaumatin is safe for use by diabetics as it does not effect blood glucose levels. Currently it is only GRAS for use as a flavoring agent and is primarily used in chewing gums. This may be due to the fact that the sweetness builds over time versus being super sweet immediately and it also has a bit of a licorice aftertaste, so its use may be more limited than most other sweeteners.

Stevioside is also a natural product, it is an extract of the stevia plant, which while not approved for use in the US in food products, is allowed to be sold as a dietary supplement since dietary supplements do not have to go through the FDA approval process. It is 200 -300 times sweeter than sugar and is heat stable so can be used in baked goods. Stevioside is a glycoside and exists naturally in the plant as a feeding deterrent for aphids. The FDA won't disclose why they have denied approval for use, they simply state for now that they do not have enough information yet to grant approval. Other countries have ok'd this product for use, so we'll have to wait and see if the US adds their name to the list.

Lastly is a really new sweetener; in 2007 a product called Cweet was trademarked. It comes from a West African fruit, Pentadiplandra brazzeana Baillon, and is 1000 times sweeter than sugar. It is also a naturally occuring sweet protein, like thaumatin, that is heat stable with no aftertaste. It is so new though that commercial quantities are not yet being produced and it has not yet been reviewed by the FDA for approval. It is one however, to keep your eye on for the future.

Well, that about covers sweeteners. I've told you about the old and the new, the artificial and the natural, the sugars and the proteins. You are well on your way to being sweetener experts. I hope that you research some of these sweeteners on your own and find one that works best for you. As always, I welcome your suggestions for topics, so please send me a note about what's on your mind and come back next week to see what topic I'm covering.

Friday, March 7, 2008

What Could Be Sweeter? Part 5

Here we are at sucralose, the last of the 5 FDA approved non-nutrative, high intensity sweeteners and currently the most popular sweetener used in the US. Sucralose is a relatively new sweetener as they go; it was discovered in 1976 when 2 scientists were working with chlorinated sugars as intermediates for other compounds. The story is that one chemist asked the other to 'test the compound' but the other chemist misheard it as 'taste the compound'. Now, I can't verify the validity of this story (and it suggests a serious lapse in judgment and some really bad lab practices on the part of the second chemist), but we do know that someone tasted the compound and discovered it to be really sweet. 600 times sweeter than sugar to be exact. Over the next 20 years, a considerable amount of testing was performed on both animals and humans (~110 studies) before the FDA approved it for limited use in 1998, followed by approval for general use in 1999. It is sold under the trade name Splenda.

If you've been reading about the other sweeteners in this series, I'm sure you're aware there is a controversy about the safety of these types of products and sucralose is no exception. Let me start with this caveat - I've "no horse in this race"; I don't make these products, nor do I make any money from them, I just want to pass on my knowledge of these products so you can make informed decisions. There is a lot of chemistry involved here, so I'll try to make it understandable.

Sucralose uses sugar as its starting material, although theoretically other chemicals (and yes, sucrose is a chemical) could be used. On the sucrose molecule 3 hydroxyl (-OH) groups are replaced with 3 chlorine (-Cl) atoms to make the sucralose molecule (aka - trichlorogalactosucrose or chlorinated sugar). Sucralose belongs to a class of chemicals known as organochlorides. Organochlorides are organic compounds that contain at least one covalently-bonded chlorine atom. Now, it is because sucralose is an organochloride that most of the controversy exists. Let me give you some background - each of these statements are equally true:

  1. Some organochlorides are toxic

  2. Some pesticides, including DDT, are organochlorides

  3. Organochlorides are fat soluble and can accumulate in our fatty tissues over time

  4. Some organochlorides are naturally occurring

  5. Some things we eat (well, that I eat) contain organochlorides like seaweed

  6. 165 organochlorides are approved worldwide for use in pharmaceutical drugs including Claratin and Zoloft

There is also some concern, though no proof at this point, that chronic consumption over many years could result in shrinkage of the thymus, a result seen in rats when fed the equivalent of 20,000 packets per day for one month. You see, there are those out there who think that because sucralose is an organochloride it should be considered toxic and subject to far more scrutiny than other compounds. There are also those who feel that all man-made chemicals are suspicious. You may fall into one or both of these categories which is fine by me, but here's my take on this product.

Sucralose is mostly undigested, meaning it leaves our body in the same way it comes in. And it has been shown through research that the chlorine atoms are not cleaved off the molecule in our bodies. However, between 2-8% of sucralose is metabolized (the metabolites are glucuronides). So why don't I worry about those metabolites? Well, sucralose is water-soluble not fat-soluble, so the threat of it depositing in our fatty tissues is pretty remote. And in addition to our FDA, the World Health Organization (WHO), the EU, Canada and others have all weighed in on the safety issue and agreed that it poses no hazard at levels equal to 75 packets per day. Given that these people hold advanced degrees far above mine, I'm willing to go with their vote.

If you've now decided that this sweetener is a-ok with you, what else should you know about it? It is heat stable, so it can be used in baked goods and canned goods like jellies. And while it contributes no calories, this is due to its small usage rate because of its intense sweetness. Those Splenda packets do have calories due to the dextrose and maltodextrin they contain as bulking agents (used to dilute the sucralose). There are really 3 calories per packet, but the FDA allows the claim of 'zero calories' because of how the rules are written. [allowed to state zero calories on food containing less than 5 calories per reference amount customarily consumed and per labeled serving]. Sucralose is safe for diabetics to use and it is often used as a blend with acesulfame potassium and aspartame.

Whew! I know this topic has been a long one, but sometimes food literacy requires a lot of information. I hope that you now have a new take on non-nutrative, high intensity sweeteners and that I either confirmed your suspicions or alleviated your concerns. There are some other sweeteners out there awaiting approval, used as food supplements, and/or allowed outside the US which I will talk about next week!

Sunday, March 2, 2008

What Could Be Sweeter? Part 4

If last week's sweetener neotame was the upstart, this week's is the patriarch. Saccharin was discovered in 1879, has been used for well over a century, and is the most widely used high intensity sweetener in the world. So, let's learn more about it!

The raw material for saccharin, aka benzoic sulfinide, is anthranilic acid, the amino acid precursor to tryptophan, which is reacted with nitrous acid, sulfur dioxide, chlorine and ammonia. Sounds yummy doesn't it? Well, not many things sound very appetizing if you get in to their chemical makeup! But saccharin isn't very soluble in its native state, so it is usually converted to its sodium salt (calcium salts are also available but not as common). Sodium saccharin does not contribute any calories, is non-digestable, and is 300 times sweeter than sugar.

But that is not what most people know about saccharin, what they've learned is that it causes cancer. So, lets spend some time discussing saccharin's safety. Saccharin was first used on a large scale during WWI when sugar was rationed and it was added to the newly formed GRAS list (Generally Recognized As Safe) in 1958. In the early 1970's the FDA began a review of GRAS substances to see how they performed under more modern scientific scrutiny. This is when saccharin was first seen to cause bladder cancer in rats when they were fed the equivalent of 800 diet sodas per day. At first there was some discussion that impurities in the saccharin were responsible for the cancer but in 1977, research did conclude that it was the saccharin. Because of this, a warning label was required to be placed on any product containing saccharin that stated "Use of this product may be hazardous to your health. This product contains saccharin which has been determined to casue cancer in laboratory animals."

Since then a number of new studies have been conducted, including mechanistic studies which look at how a substance works in the body, and they paint a different picture. See, rats aren't people, [although some people have certainly be said to have been rats :) ] and the mechanism that exists in rats which leads to the bladder cancer doesn't exist in humans. Those tumors are species and organ specific - so the results are bad for rats, but irrelevant to people. [For those concerned about the rats, newer studies have suggested it is actually the sodium salt and not the saccharin that may be the culprit, as sodium ascorbate (vitamin C) and sodium citrate also seem to produce similar results.]

Human epidemiology studies (patterns, causes, & control of diseases) have not shown any evidence that saccharin causes cancer in humans. In fact, since saccharin is not metabolized and does not react with DNA, it lacks two of the major characteristics of classic carciongens. Because of these studies, saccharin was delisted as a carcinogen in 2000 and the warning labels were removed in 2001. The American Cancer Society, National Cancer Institute, and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) have all given saccharin a clean bill of health. Unfortunately, a survey conducted in 2006 found that 30% of Americans still thought that the warning labels were on products, and I'm willing to bet that more than that still think it causes cancer.

So, what about this product has made it so appealing for so long? Well, saccharin is heat stable even in acid conditions which makes it a great choice for beverages. It is also ok for use by diabetics since it has no effect on blood sugar levels. Just beware that those little pink packets do not contain straight saccharin; they are blended with dextrose to dilute the sweetness to the equivalent to 2 teaspoons of sugar, and so do contain a nutrative (read: calorie containing) sweetener. Saccharin also is synergistic with other sweeteners, both nutrative and non-nutrative, enhancing their sweetness in products. It has a long shelf life and is heat stable, so can be used in a wide variety of foods including baked goods and canned goods like jellies.

So, I hope you now have a new perspective on saccharin. Like many of the other high intensity sweeteners that I've covered, there is quite a lot of misinformation out there. Next week I'll be covering the last FDA approved high intensity sweetener - Sucralose, so please come back to learn about the US's most popular sweetener.