Friday, September 10, 2010


Food technologists confront the problem of oxidative rancidity in foods containing unsaturated fats and deploy a few chemicals that can retard the oxidative reaction. But use of these preservatives is always fraught with controversies with many consumer activists opposing their use under the impression that they can cause health damage to the consumers. That organized industry uses only those additives in food which are permitted legally is often forgotten in the debate about its safety. The food safety authorities world over and the WHO Codex Commission are fully aware about the implications of permitting such chemicals and the consumer has to have confidence on their objectivity in deciding about the desirability or other wise about the use of chemical additives in food.

When it comes to edible oils, the relative deterioration in quality is caused by either oxidation or hydrolysis which can affect the flavor and eating quality of the product very significantly besides causing temporary discomforts as well as some adverse health consequences. Food industry working on foods with sufficiently long life necessary for standing the rigors of modern marketing system have to resort to their stabilization which is achieved some time only with use of chemicals. But for the use of antioxidant chemicals many fat containing foods will not last even for a few hours let alone months. A distinction has to be made between freshly consumed fried foods and others intended for upcountry markets through the vast market network. Also desirable is protection of frying oils from oxidation during the thermal process for which stabilizers are needed.

Recent controversy regarding the use of Tertiary Butylated Hydro Quinone (TBHQ) in Chicken Nuggets offered by McDonald's to Chinese customers through its 1135 outlets through out that country touches the core of the problem. Interestingly the Chinese Health Authorities did not raise any objection to the use of TBHQ as it is permitted in that country at 0.02% on the basis of fat content but a stray report that same nuggets served in the UK did not contain TBHQ raised the ire amongst the Chinese customers, blown out of proportion by some activists and the vocal media. It was pointed out that TBHQ can cause cancer in animals though available scientific evidence does not support such a stand. A stray report even mentioned that 1 gm of TBHQ can create severe problems if consumed without bothering to check the fact as to how much chicken nuggets will have to be consumed to ingest such a large amount. A huge and unimaginable quantity of about 5 kg of nuggets at one go! While Chines authorities did assure the public that TBHQ is safe, a rider was issued along with, advising the citizens to avoid eating such products for long time as the chemical has the property to accumulate in the body with consequent adverse effect. China itself is in the global market selling TBHQ at relatively low price for use by food industry as well as other industries.

According to food experts, nuggets made in the UK uses a precooking procedure while in the US, China and other places the chemical concoction is pre-coated before frying. What difference it makes is not clear though the UK version is said to be absorbing less oil during frying. Why the company has a different process in the UK is a mystery though it might have some thing to do with the taste preference of British consumers. A serious allegation raised against TBHQ was that it is some form of Butane, a hydrocarbon considered harmful to humans but these critics forget that it is totally different from Butane and even the every day consuming butter also contains Butyrates, "related" to Butane reflecting the hollowness of such a criticism. It is sad that the relative innocence of the consumer is sought to be exploited through some of the "inspired" criticisms without valid scientific basis.


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