Making life taste better

Antioxidants

Antioxidants

Oxidation is a real problem for food products. Oxidation, for example, causes raw apples and potatoes go brown, but this can prevented in the kitchen by adding lemon juice. It’s very effective because lemon juice contains a very strong antioxidant – ascorbic acid or vitamin C (E300). By preventing or slowing down the oxidation process in foods, waste through spoilage is reduced.

Many antioxidants occur naturally in fruit and vegetables, many of which are flavonoid compounds such as quercetin in onions and apples, and epigallocatechin in tea. The health benefits of these antioxidants are becoming clear, and many scientific studies have been carried out on them. Oxidation can damage DNA leading to cancer, and can change polyunsaturated-fatty acids into forms that contribute to heart attacks and strokes. Increasing the consumption of antioxidants can have a preventative effect against cancer and heart disease, although it’s not clear yet which are the most effective.

Unsaturated fats are particularly vulnerable to oxidation, and this causes them to turn rancid. These are some examples of antioxidant food additives:

Ascorbic acid (E300), or vitamin C, is found in many different fruits. It is also commonly used as a flour improver.

Butylated hydroxyanisole (E320) is a synthetic antioxidant which works by stabilising free radicals.

Butylated hydroxytoluene (E321) or BHT is another synthetic antioxidant. It works in the same way as butylated hydroxyanisole, but has caused controversy, as it has produced adverse effects in dogs. However, it also has anticancer effects.

Propyl gallate (E310) is a synthetic antioxidant. Its main food use is in products that contain oils and fats.

Tocopherols (E306) are natural antioxidants which are forms of vitamin E. The most important sources are vegetable oils such as palm, corn, sunflower, soybean and olive.

Use of food additives ‘safer and more transparent’ thanks to new legislation.

Safer and more transparent use.

The use of additives in food will soon become even safer and more transparent thanks to legislation adopted by the European Commission.

“This represents a landmark in our efforts to strengthen food safety in the EU,” says Health and Consumer Policy Commissioner John Dalli (pictured). “The adoption of two regulations on additives will further empower citizens and industry alike as they will make it easier for everyone concerned to know exactly what additives are allowed in foodstuffs.”

The two regulations establish two new lists. The first concerns additives in food and will come into force in June 2013. This list will allow consumers to easily identify which additives are authorised in a particular foodstuff. The second list relates to additives in food ingredients, and will apply 20 days after its publication in the EU’s Official Journal.

Transparency is one major benefit of the new legislation as the new list makes it obvious that in some food categories the authorised additives are very limited or not allowed at all. This is the case, for instance, for unflavoured yogurt, butter, compote, pasta, simple bread, honey, water and fruit juice. In other categories, usually those concerning highly processed foodstuffs – such as confectionery, snacks, sauces and flavoured drinks – a large number of additives are authorised.

“Any initiative that helps educate and enlighten consumers is to be welcomed,” says an FAIA spokesman.

This legislation does just that, while helping to reinforce the message that authorised additives are not only safe but also play a key role in food safety.

Chemist in the kitchen

A page from our first website!

If you want to know more about how food additives tie in with the chemistry that goes on in the kitchen, a downloadable booklet entitled ‘In the mix’ is accessible from the home page, or from the image on this page.

Chemicals have always been welcome in the kitchen: sodium bicarbonate, pectin, yeast, acetic acid etc.

Every cook is a chemist. The first chemical laboratories, back in the Middle Ages, were glorified kitchens, and many chemical processes derive from techniques of cooking. The vital technique of distillation was perfected in the course of man’s search for intoxicating drinks. And far from being dehumanizing, such chemical processes have an ancient magic and glamour, as the great Italian writer Primo Levi pointed out (he was also a chemist):-

Distilling is beautiful.

‘First of all, because it is a slow, philosophic, and silent occupation, which keeps you busy but gives you time to think of other things, somewhat like riding a bike. Then because it involves a metamorphosis from liquid to invisible (vapour) invisible, and from this once again to liquid; but in this double journey, up and down, purity is obtained, an ambiguous and fascinating condition, which starts with chemistry and goes very far. And finally, when you set about distilling, you acquire the consciousness of repeating a ritual consecrated by centuries, almost a religious act, in which from imperfect material you obtain the essence, the usia, the spirit, and in the first place alcohol, which gladdens the spirit and warms the heart.’

Every kitchen contains a battery of chemical reagents, each with their specific chemical purpose; e.g. sodium bicarbonate, pectin, yeast, acetic acid, sodium chloride; and also substances, such as milk and eggs, that are not usually thought of as chemicals but which actually miracle reagents that chemists would still be incapable of creating if they didn’t already exist.

In many cases, ingredients that sound like chemicals are derived from natural products: lecithin from soya is similar to egg lecithin, acetic acid comes from vinegar, Vitamin C is the active ingredient of lemon juice, and so on. The principle of using additives is something that every cook, high or low, uses every time they prepare a meal. To understand the processes of making sauces, meringues, bread and cakes, of marinading, tenderising and caramelising is to become a food chemist, and it greatly enhances the pleasure of cooking to see it from a chemical point of view. Cooking is chemistry in action, with the added benefit that you can eat the results.