Old foods for new
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CTA. 2003. Old foods for new. Spore 104. CTA, Wageningen, The Netherlands.
Permanent link to this item: http://hdl.handle.net/10568/47877
Internet URL: http://spore.cta.int/images/stories/pdf/old/spore104.pdf
For producers and consumers, the food experience is about taste, and looks and texture too. If you can grow the additives they want, you're onto a winner.
Old foods for new For producers and consumers, the food experience is about taste, and looks and texture too. If you can grow the additives they want, you're onto a winner. We share this planet with a nation whose culture has created a demand for microwave ovens in cars, for radio-frequency ovens that cook and brown in seconds and for new levels of consistency and convenience from the food manufacturer. We may regret this estrangement from simple, sometimes slow, food and simple cooking, but it is part of reality in the market of urban diets. Most foods simply do not have the consistent quality that these markets now demand. And so additives are used to smooth out variations in food characteristics. Among the many definitions of 'food additive', a decent but distilled one (adapted from Codex Alimentarius, see Links) is "a substance or ingredient not normally present in that food that is added to enhance the quality or safety of that food". This covers a wide range of substances in the product developer's cupboard. Some are synthetic, based on chemical mixes, such as those extracted from coal tar; others are naturally-occurring, such as berry juice. Some additives such as sugar and salt are very familiar; others less so, such as calcium disodium ethylenediamine tetra acetate (E 385), used in canned shellfish but banned in some countries. Additives are commonly classified by their function in foods - colouring, emulsifying, preserving, flavouring or extending. Molecules make a meal About 10 synthetic colours find their way into our food, with tiny quantities being required to achieve the required cosmetic effect. Although approved under the strict safety conditions set by the de facto standard-setter, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), many of these colours are derived from distillates of coal tar, other components of which make toxicologists nervous. The list is shortening as more natural colour alternatives are approved. Most naturally occurring foods contain both water and oil (or fat) in some sort of stable association - an emulsion. Emulsions are responsible for some of the attributes of food relating to texture and mouth-feel. Flavour additives tend to be more soluble in lipids (fats) than in water, and they retain the flavours we enjoy most in the so-called non-aqueous phase - the non-watery part. Emulsifiers are used by food scientists in such foods as chocolate, salad cream, sausage and ice-cream. Many emulsions are unstable, as when cream rises to the surface of milk. They can be stabilised by increasing the viscosity - the clinging nature - of the aqueous phase in the emulsion. This prevents oil droplets coalescing, and involves using such stabilisers as starch, guar gum or proteins such as gelatin. The slightest addition of, say, a thickener known as carrageenan, derived from a simple moss, can make the difference between a consistent, and therefore saleable, bottled sauce and an unsettled, unsaleable one. Preservatives are a more controversial form of additives. These are anti-microbial compounds which retard microbial growth. Suspicion surrounds preservatives because they interrupt the biochemical processes of cells. Sceptics also argue that if foods were diluted less they would not require preservatives. Other additives such as flavourings are either extracts or synthetic 'look-alike' analogues of natural flavours. Compounds such as acids, sweeteners and flavour enhancers, such as monosodium glutamate (the famous MSG on Chinese restaurant menus), boost naturally occurring flavours. Their use as extenders for more expensive ingredients has besmirched the name of additives, raising suspicions that additives are present to mask fraud. True colours Faced by a public wary of possible health risks in synthetic additives, and with the production costs of these additives rising, it is no wonder that many foods are enjoying new-found fame as additive substitutes. Turmeric (Curcuma) and beetroot (Beta vulgaris) have been propelled to stardom because of their colouring properties - yellow and dark red, respectively, although they fade when exposed to light over long periods. Dried carrot powder, with its beta carotene components, makes a bright orange-red colouring, but it too bleaches in light. A sturdier dark red colourant is amaranth (Amaranthus sp.) - just 1 part in 4,000 will turn a bland jelly dark red. Also stable in light, but prone to darkening in darkness, are the theaflavins in tea which give a rust-red colour. The use of purely chemical additives is also retreating in the face of equally effective natural sources. Peanut and soy flour, for example, are rich sources of the baker's widely used natural emulsifier lecithin, and the resulting emulsions can be stabilised using okra or tamarind extracts. Beware, however: peanut derivatives may face problems in such international markets as the EU which have raised barriers against peanuts on health grounds. Grow into additives It is, indeed, market forces and trade regulations which will dictate the future of additives. Most industrial producers, partly in awe of the 'organic' genre, know that the discovery of a safe and effective natural alternative will spell the demise of their synthetic one. The transnational corporation Roche, for example, searches continuously for natural ingredients through bio-prospecting. 'Natural' does not mean safe, however. Mildly sweet glycerrhizin from licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra) has disturbing physiological effects, and the steviocide sweetener from the honey leaf (Stevia rebaudiana) (the topic of the phenomenally popular article on Stevia in Spore 94) is endorsed by the FDA not as a food additive but as a dietary supplement. Much of the agitated debate around Stevia as an additive is about how health laws are applied, allegedly, as a way to protect trade interests. Additives make for a complex topic, biologically speaking. Yet, economically speaking, they add value to existing foods, making them last longer, go further and have greater appeal to more customers. The move towards using natural alternatives presents an opportunity for many an ACP producer, covering much more than ACP foods alone.