How to count on food

Arsenic, an­tibi­otics and pes­ti­cides all find their way into food but you prob­a­bly won’t find them listed on la­bels.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - Taste - star2@thes­ Chris Chan

IF you are read­ing this af­ter a meal, and you are in an Asian coun­try, the chances are rea­son­ably high that you have just eaten some rice or rice-based foods. If so, then you have al­most cer­tainly also in­gested tiny amounts of var­i­ous arsenic-based com­pounds, which are sort of free ad­di­tives – though of course they are rather un­de­sir­able ones.

Arsenic, in var­i­ous con­cen­tra­tions, is very com­mon in rice be­cause arsenic is a met­al­loid el­e­ment found prac­ti­cally ev­ery­where on the planet (it is the 53rd most com­mon el­e­ment on Earth) – and rice is par­tic­u­larly ef­fi­cient at ex­tract­ing it from the ir­ri­gated soil in which it is grown.

Tech­ni­cally, arsenic com­pounds ex­ist as both or­ganic and in­or­ganic forms – or­ganic arsenic com­pounds con­tain one or more car­bon atoms while in­or­ganic arsenic com­pounds do not have any car­bon atoms.

In­or­ganic arsenic com­pounds are much more com­mon in soil and ir­ri­ga­tion wa­ters (and thus in rice) – and un­for­tu­nately, they are also sig­nif­i­cantly more toxic than or­ganic arsenic com­pounds, es­pe­cially the in­or­ganic triva­lent forms such as arsenic tri­ox­ide, sodium ar­sen­ite and arsenic trichlo­ride.

Pen­tava­lent in­or­ganic arsenic com­pounds such as arsenic pen­tox­ide, arsenic acid and ar­se­n­ates (lead ar­se­n­ate, cal­cium ar­se­n­ate, et cetera) are less toxic and also pretty com­mon but they can be metabolised into triva­lent arsenic by hu­man di­ges­tive sys­tems.

A sober­ing ex­am­ple of arsenic poi­son­ing is Bangladesh, where around 80 mil­lion peo­ple are af­fected by arsenic con­tam­i­na­tion. Around 43,000 peo­ple die each year in the coun­try from this poi­son – and the symp­toms are starkly sum­marised by an ex­cerpt from a med­i­cal review pub­lished in 2011: “Chronic arsenic ex­po­sure is as­so­ci­ated with many hu­man health con­di­tions, in­clud­ing skin le­sions and can­cers of the liver, lung, blad­der and skin. It is also as­so­ci­ated with many non-cancer health con­di­tions, such as ad­verse re­pro­duc­tive out­comes, neu­ro­log­i­cal dis­or­ders and im­paired cog­ni­tive de­vel­op­ment in chil­dren.”

How­ever, please note that not all the arsenic in Bangladesh is ob­tained from eat­ing rice as much of the drink­ing water there is also se­verely con­tam­i­nated. How­ever, it does in­di­cate the tox­i­c­ity of arsenic, and led to the US De­part­ment of Food & Drug Ad­min­is­tra­tion (FDA) in 2016 act­ing to limit the max­i­mum per­mit­ted level of in­or­ganic arsenic to just 100 ppb (parts per bil­lion) for in­fant rice ce­re­als – prob­a­bly be­cause tox­i­c­ity is linked to the amount of arsenic in­gested rel­a­tive to body weight.

The En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency in the United States also lim­its the amount of in­or­ganic arsenic in drink­ing water to just 10 ppb.

Re­gard­less of the somber sit­u­a­tion in Bangladesh, there is gen­er­ally no need to worry too much about arsenic in rice as sup­plies are tested reg­u­larly for arsenic con­tent, at least in West­ern coun­tries.

If you are still con­cerned, a val­i­dated tech­nique is to soak rice overnight in water and then cook­ing the rice us­ing a 5 to 1 ra­tio of water to rice, then throw­ing away the ex­cess water. This method elim­i­nates arsenic con­tent by 80%.

A cu­ri­ous ap­pli­ca­tion of arsenic is its use in chicken feed as it has been found that or­ganic arsenic helps fight par­a­sitic in­fec­tions and pro­mote tis­sue de­vel­op­ment (weight gain) in poul­try.

The prob­lem is that the in­gested safe or­ganic arsenic com­pounds gets metabolised into toxic in­or­ganic arsenic com­pounds (methy­lated pheny­larseni­cal me­tab­o­lites) by the di­ges­tive sys­tem of chickens – as such, adding arsenic to chicken feed is now banned in both the Euro­pean Union and the United States.

How­ever, it seems that the prac­tice of feed­ing or­ganic arsenic to chickens is still preva­lent in many other coun­tries.

An­tibi­otics with your steak, sir?

More free but un­wanted com­mon ad­di­tives are the an­tibi­otics used in the farm­ing of an­i­mals. The big­gest con­cern is that such use pro­motes the re­sis­tance of mam­malian bac­te­ria to the an­tibi­otics, many of which are also used in hu­mans.

The menu of an­tibi­otics used in an­i­mals is im­pres­sive as the list in­cludes chlorte­tra­cy­cline, pro­caine peni­cillin, oxyte­tra­cy­cline, ty­losin, bac­i­tracin, neomycin sul­fate, strep­to­mycin, ery­thromycin, lino­mycin, ole­an­domycin, vir­ginamycin, bam­bermycins, et cetera.

The good news is that the use in an­i­mals of many of these com­pounds is now banned in the EU (es­pe­cially those com­pounds with hu­man med­i­cal ap­pli­ca­tions); the bad news is that they are still heav­ily ad­min­is­tered in most other coun­tries, in­clud­ing the United States.

The other prob­lem is that in­gest­ing food laced with an­tibi­otics can also pro­mote within hu­mans, bac­te­rial re­sis­tance to an­tibi­otics – po­ten­tially ren­der­ing fu­ture treat­ment with the same types of an­tibi­otics in­ef­fec­tive.

As an in­di­ca­tion of the scale of the prob­lem: in the United States, an­i­mals con­sume 70% of ALL med­i­cally-im­por­tant an­tibi­otics pro­duced, com­pared to just 30% for hu­mans – a scary statis­tic in­deed from Bri­tain’s Review of An­timi­cro­bial Re­sis­tance pub­lished in De­cem­ber 2015.

The same con­cerns also ap­ply to shrimps, prawns and other seafood, so much so that im­ports of such seafood from China and var­i­ous Asian coun­tries are sub­ject to heavy re­stric­tions in both the United States and the EU – the an­tibi­otics used in­clude ni­tro­fu­rans and chlo­ram­pheni­col.

A dash of pes­ti­cides in your greens?

Apart from po­ten­tially poi­son­ing hu­mans when in­gested, pes­ti­cides can have a sig­nif­i­cant im­pact on lo­cal fauna. Some im­pacts are very se­ri­ous – a class of in­sec­ti­cide called neon­i­coti­noids or neon­ics have been found to kill bees and other pol­li­na­tors. With­out pol­li­na­tion of plants by these in­sects, much of the world’s abil­ity to pro­duce food crops, veg­eta­bles and fruits would be se­verely com­pro­mised – and it is such a grave prob­lem that the EU has banned the use of the three most com­mon neon­ics: im­i­da­clo­prid, cloth­i­an­i­din and thi­amethoxam.

Stren­u­ous mon­i­tor­ing of pes­ti­cides in the EU has re­sulted in 97.4% of crops in 2013 test­ing be­low the Max­i­mum Residue Lim­its (MRL) per­mit­ted – im­ported foods, on the other hand, are five times more likely to ex­ceed the MRL.

Sev­eral per­ni­cious pes­ti­cides which are heav­ily used abroad, in­clud­ing the United States, are also banned in the EU – ex­am­ples are Paraquat (linked to Parkin­son’s dis­ease); 1,3-Dichloro­propene (linked to hu­man can­cers); Glyphosate, also known as RoundUp (the most heav­ily used pes­ti­cide in the United States, banned in some EU coun­tries, linked to sev­eral se­ri­ous hu­man dis­eases) and Atrazine (linked to can­cers and birth de­fects).

Even so, the EU dis­persed al­most 400,000 tonnes of pes­ti­cides in 2015 – of which 173,000 tonnes are fungi­cides and bac­te­ri­cides, 131,000 tonnes are her­bi­cides and moss killers while 21,000 tonnes are in­sec­ti­cides and aca­ri­cides).

In case you are cu­ri­ous, aca­ri­cides are chem­i­cals used to kill ticks, mites and other mem­bers of the arach­nid sub­class Acari.

Clan­des­tine ad­di­tives

Un­in­tended ad­di­tives such as in­or­ganic arsenic com­pounds, an­tibi­otics and pes­ti­cides are never in­cluded in the list of in­gre­di­ents of pro­cessed foods, even though they are of­ten not de­stroyed by food pro­cess­ing. Pre­sum­ably the costs and ef­forts as­so­ci­ated with such ad­di­tional dis­clo­sures are not prac­ti­cal for the food in­dus­try – even the food reg­u­la­tors do not seem in­ter­ested in ex­pos­ing such in­for­ma­tion.

The cat­a­logue of such “free” hid­den food ad­di­tives can be a very long list, rang­ing from mer­cury and poly­chlo­ri­nated biphenyls (PCB) in deep sea fish, flesh colourants (eg. syn­thetic as­tax­an­thin) in farmed seafood to Bisphe­nol A (BPA) ac­cu­mu­lated in food from plas­tic con­tain­ers.

Nat­u­ral is not al­ways nat­u­ral

To make things more con­fus­ing, many foods la­belled as “nat­u­ral” may not al­ways be nat­u­ral in the sense that you and I would un­der­stand it. While the in­gre­di­ents may all be from nat­u­ral sources, it is not nat­u­ral to have, for ex­am­ple, a com­pound such as E325 (sodium lac­tate) in­jected into chicken meat as a preser­va­tive.

The self-ev­i­dent ar­gu­ment is that a chicken by it­self will never have sodium lac­tate in­cluded in its nat­u­ral con­fig­u­ra­tion, even if E325 is it­self de­rived from nat­u­ral sources.

Still, these ob­vi­ous facts do not stop many food pro­duc­ers from mar­ket­ing their prod­ucts as “made from nat­u­ral in­gre­di­ents” or some deriva­tion of “nat­u­ral prod­uct”.


If this se­ries has prompted you to in­spect pro­cessed food la­bels more care­fully, you would very likely have come across a com­pound called mal­todex­trin – it is used so ubiq­ui­tously that it does not even have an E-num­ber as it is con­sid­ered by the food in­dus­try as a nor­mal in­gre­di­ent, such as fish or flour or meat.

Mal­todex­trin has some in­ter­est­ing prop­er­ties – it is usu­ally ar­ti­fi­cially de­rived from wheat, corn, rice or po­tato starches by en­zy­matic pro­cesses and can be pro­duced in var­i­ous molec­u­lar lengths by vary­ing the num­ber of gly­co­sidic bonds of starch glu­cose mol­e­cules.

The length of mal­todex­trin mol­e­cules de­ter­mine its sweet­ness, which is de­noted by the Dex­trose Equiv­a­lent (DE) scale of be­tween 3 and 20 – the higher the DE, the shorter the mal­todex­trin mol­e­cule and the sweeter the com­pound. Above a DE of 20, mal­todex­trin is prac­ti­cally just short strands of sim­ple glu­cose mol­e­cules and is of­ten then called glu­cose syrup.

Re­gard­less of the DE scale, mal­todex­trin is eas­ily bro­ken down dur­ing di­ges­tion into glu­cose – this can have a sig­nif­i­cant im­pact on blood su­gar lev­els.

Hence over-con­sump­tion of mal­todex­trin is not re­ally suit­able for peo­ple with blood su­gar con­trol is­sues as it is not dif­fer­ent from in­gest­ing sugars – but of­ten with­out any warning from the sweet­ness of food.

One rea­son why mal­todex­trin is so com­monly used is that it is man­u­fac­tured in many con­fig­u­ra­tions which can sub­stan­tially im­prove the “mouth feel” of food with­out adding any dis­agree­able flavours.

Here is how it works: At a DE of 3, mal­todex­trin is prac­ti­cally flavour­less, and the long glu­cose chains would also ex­ist in poly­meric (or grouped, bunched-up) con­fig­u­ra­tions – the lower the DE, the greater the poly­meri­sa­tion of mal­todex­trin mol­e­cules.

So the den­sity and tex­tures of mal­todex­trin can be con­trolled by ad­just­ing the DE (or poly­meri­sa­tion) of the com­pound – long-poly­mer mal­todex­trin is even used as a fat sub­sti­tute in low-fat meat prod­ucts as it can have the mouth feel of fat.

As such, mal­todex­trin is a very ver­sa­tile com­pound and used ex­ten­sively as thick­en­ers and fillers, match­ing the tex­tures of the re­quired pro­cessed food items. It can also be added to drinks to im­prove the spe­cific grav­ity of liq­uids.

Foods with long-poly­mer mal­todex­trins also tend to last longer as its mol­e­cules can­not be bro­ken down by bac­te­ria or fungi eas­ily (eg. the mal­todex­trin added to beers to in­crease spe­cific grav­ity is

not af­fected by the fer­men­ta­tion yeast) – hence it is also used as a preser­va­tive.

There are no known ma­jor tox­i­c­ity is­sues with any molec­u­lar con­fig­u­ra­tion of pure mal­todex­trin, pri­mar­ily be­cause eat­ing this com­pound is the same as in­gest­ing glu­cose.

How­ever, con­cerns may arise from the lack of sweet­ness and ubiq­uity of mal­todex­trin – these fac­tors might in­duce blood sug­ar­related health is­sues with un­wary con­sumers.

Also, mal­todex­trin is de­rived from com­mer­cial starch sources which may have been con­tam­i­nated by pes­ti­cides – which can then find their way into foods with the com­pound.

Now, about that pack­ag­ing

Dur­ing com­mer­cial food pro­duc­tion, in­gre­di­ents usu­ally lose nu­tri­ents dur­ing the pro­cess­ing un­less some nu­tri­ents are added in ar­ti­fi­cially; eg. vi­ta­min C (via E300), cal­cium (via E516), iron (via E579), et cetera.

Hence, the nutrition la­bels on the tins and pack­ages in­di­cate the resid­ual nu­tri­ents that should be present when you fi­nally open the pro­cessed food con­tainer.

What is in­ter­est­ing is that, es­pe­cially in her­met­i­cally-sealed tins, the fur­ther degra­da­tion of nu­tri­ents hap­pens only very slowly in­side the tin.

So a tin opened a year or more af­ter pro­duc­tion would have re­tained a high per­cent­age of the nu­tri­ents that were present dur­ing can­ning.

In many ways it is re­mark­able that nutri­tious food can be pre­served and pre­sented in such a con­ve­nient for­mat, con­sid­er­ing how the orig­i­nal in­gre­di­ents would have nor­mally rot­ted away within a very short space of time.

How­ever, cook­ing canned con­tents, as with cook­ing fresh foods, would also re­sult in some loss of nu­tri­ents (es­pe­cially vi­ta­mins) due to the heat in­volved.

The nutrition panel

In the EU, all pack­aged foods now re­quire a nutrition panel to in­di­cate the nu­tri­ents in the prod­ucts. The nutrition pan­els in Europe are dif­fer­ent from those in the United States and other coun­tries be­cause of the dif­fer­ent stan­dards and le­gal re­quire­ments in var­i­ous coun­tries.

Some ad­di­tional use­ful in­for­ma­tion is also some­times of­fered vol­un­tar­ily by large food sup­pli­ers, such as colour-coded tags for su­gar, fats and salt re­lated to a prod­uct (Pic­ture 2 – note that the per­cent­age num­bers at the bot­tom in­di­cate per­cent­ages of the daily adult rec­om­mended amounts for the re­spec­tive food groups). And you will need a colour-code in­ter­pre­ta­tion chart (Pic­ture 1) to un­der­stand what it all ac­tu­ally means.

But gen­er­ally, you are much more likely to see less friendly nutrition pan­els such as the fol­low­ing (Pic­ture 3).

Ob­vi­ously, the im­por­tant things to note about this la­bel and other food nutrition pan­els are the calo­ries, su­gar and salt con­tents – note that in the EU, the unit “kcal” (kilo­calo­rie) is used to rep­re­sent 1,000 calo­ries whereas in the United States, the unit used is “Cal” (Calo­rie).

The World Health Or­gan­i­sa­tion (WHO)’s over-gen­er­ous daily guide­line for su­gar con­sump­tion is 25g and con­sum­ing 100g of this food item would be con­sum­ing over a third of that daily su­gar limit.

The WHO also rec­om­mends a limit of 6g of salt a day and 100g of this food would be over a tenth of that amount.

As you go through var­i­ous meals, it would be help­ful to keep a run­ning to­tal of the calo­ries, sugars and salt that you are con­sum­ing and en­sure that you keep within rea­son­able lim­its for the day as of­ten as pos­si­ble.

What is in­ter­est­ing about the Fats in­for­ma­tion in this ex­am­ple la­bel is what it is NOT telling you.

If you sum up the sat­u­rates, mono-un­sat­u­rates and polyun­sat­u­rates, the to­tal comes to 3.6g, which is 0.2g less than the to­tal of 3.8g. The dif­fer­ence is al­most cer­tainly due to un­re­ported trans­fats, a par­tic­u­larly un­healthy fat to in­gest but very con­ve­nient for use in pro­cessed foods. On this ba­sis alone, I would per­son­ally not eat this food item.

And this se­ries sums up what I look for and un­der­stand from the data gleaned when I scru­ti­nise in­gre­di­ent lists and nutrition la­belling. Although it is al­ways prefer­able to cook fresh foods, of­ten it is ex­i­gent to get some nutri­tious pack­aged food which can save time and ef­fort.

Pro­cessed food is not al­ways au­to­mat­i­cally bad for health – and of­ten they can taste quite good too, which al­ways seems a bit of a mir­a­cle con­sid­er­ing the heavy pro­cess­ing they must un­dergo be­fore ar­riv­ing in a tin in front of you.

But at least, you now have a bet­ter idea how and why.

This ends our se­ries on food la­bels. Next up is the sci­ence of age­ing beef and a cou­ple of ex­per­i­ments you can do at home to im­prove your steak.

Pic­ture 1: A colour-code food in­for­ma­tion in­ter­pre­ta­tion chart.

Pic­ture 2: A colour-coded food la­bel.

Pic­ture 3: A more typ­i­cal food nutrition panel

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