Editor’s note: This post is part of our WebMD Special Report: What’s In Your Food?
For an industry perspective on food ingredients and the growing consumer movement around food, we spoke to Kantha Shelke, PhD. Shelke is a food scientist and principal at Corvus Blue, a Chicago company that helps manufacturers formulate their food products, or “applications,” as they’re called in the trade. She’s also a spokesperson for the Institute of Food Technologists — the scientists who study and know how to use the modern ingredients that make up processed foods.
Q: What is clean labeling, exactly? Are simpler foods with ingredients we can pronounce really better for us?
A: The concept of clean labeling is like beauty — it’s in the eyes of the beholder.
At the moment, food manufacturers are looking for names that start with an x, y, z or w because they are considered to be chemicals and taking them off the label. And people are taking similar ingredients sourced from plants and just putting ‘corn starch’ or ‘soybean oil’ on the label, because the original ingredient came from corn or soybeans. And consumers think ‘Oh, corn starch.’ Because corn starch sounds so benign. But depending on how that corn starch was made, and because our FDA has not come up with a clear regulation governing the process of how food ingredients are made, that corn starch may actually do you more damage, because some corn starches raise blood sugars more than others.
People in the food industry, we should have taken that oath that doctors take, ‘Do no harm.’
Q: Why are companies suddenly rushing to get artificial flavors and colors out of their foods?
A: Consumers are demanding it. There are a few areas where consumers have learned to pick up on what might be good for them and what might not be so good for them. Consumers have been on the game with regards to additives — preservatives, colors, and flavors. They picked up on that a few years ago, and food companies have been slowly trying to change it, but they’ve not been working on this fast enough.
It used to be that regulation changes was what made food companies change, but these days it’s consumers who are working faster than the regulations and raising awareness among food companies as to what matters in terms of health and appeal.
Q: Are the consumer voices always right when they target a certain additive or chemical as bad in food?
A: You know, this is like that question, ‘Why did a student fail in school?’ It wasn’t the student that failed but the school system that failed that student. It’s not that consumers are becoming finicky or whatever, it’s because the food industry failed to educate first themselves and then their target market.
Let me give you an example, Subway. Some loud person, a consumer activist, shows up in front of Subway and creates an issue with azodicarbonamide, the dough conditioner. And Subway, instead of going back and doing their homework, looking at the regulations and being able to justify first to itself — and this is something it should have done before the (activist) even showed up at its doorstep, should have been able to say ‘here are the ingredients that go into our food, and this is why.’
There is no food ingredient that is 100% safe. Even salt and water, if taken in excess, can kill you. But on the other hand, without salt and water, most human beings cannot live. So there’s no carte blanche situation out there.
Azodicarbonamide, by the way, had been studied and approved by the FDA. When the FDA studies an ingredient, it looks at it in the context of a) is that ingredient safe, is it toxic? and b) the level of exposure. At the level of exposure we expect, is that chemical safe? And FDA said yes, it would be safe. But Subway was not solid enough on their own chemistry and food science and backed down and dropped it. That’s a problem.
In the last few days, Pepsi decided they’re going to take out aspartame and put sucralose and ace-K into it. Because there’s all this science coming out that aspartame is bad for us.
That’s a classic example.
Ingredients like artificial sweeteners do have a place in our food supply. They are meant for people who cannot digest sugar for one reason or another and who sometimes want to eat something that is sweet and you don’t want to completely deny them, so it would be what Cookie Monster would call a ‘sometimes food.’ But it went from being a sometimes food to being a 10-or 20- times-a-day food. Again, it’s going back to the original thing, the dose makes the poison.
Q: Are there any ingredients you try to steer clear of, in your own food?
A: This is a difficult one to explain. My taste in foods is simple. I probably eat the same foods I used to eat when I was a little girl. But the food scientist in me marvels at the range of foods that are available to the average shopper today … all made possible by science and technology.
I do steer clear of artificial ingredients — I am disciplined in my diet and can live without them.
Q: Are there any food ingredients that seem particularly worrisome to you?
A: We don’t know much about them yet, but there are some signs that things that are replacing trans fats may not be good for us.
Partially hydrogenated oil, you know, Crisco, was a very clever invention. It was really terrific in that before it was introduced fats and frying oil would turn rancid very fast. It was very difficult to make food products. People who made French fries couldn’t get the right texture. Along comes partially hydrogenated oil, and you could suddenly get French fries that held the heat, and by the time it came out of the fryer it stayed hot and crisp for 10 minutes. It’s a great thing for cakes and pastries etc, at a fraction of the cost of butter. Name the dessert or baked product, and all of a sudden they were very smooth and very nice, had a long shelf life, and they didn’t turn rancid. When you took a doughnut and put it on a napkin it didn’t make that ring around it because it had partially hydrogenated oil in it.
But when they discovered that by the way, when you make partially hydrogenated oil the way they were making it, you’re also making a certain amount of trans fat, and it’s OK to consume a small amount of partially hydrogenated oil but if you’re consuming it in every food, by the end of the day, you’re consuming so much trans fat that it can cause a lot of health problems.
So then the industry went to finding other alternatives. So they turned to fats that are naturally solid like coconut oil and palm oil. Coconut oil and palm oil when consumed in small amounts are very therapeutic. But when consumed in amounts that they would have to be consumed in order to replace trans fats in the typical American diet — starting with a Danish in the morning, a sandwich in the afternoon, a cupcake for a snack, something else fried — by the end of all that, the amount of stuff they ate would have a very, very high level of saturated fat. That definitely causes cardiovascular and heart health issues.
Then they tried unsaturated oils. The first people who tried that were the cracker people. And they would make these fancy layered crackers and call them olive oil and sea salt crackers, but they forgot to tell Americans that they had to eat them within a month because they go bad. Here’s a case of something where you would think that a cracker made with sunflower oil or safflower oil would be better for you, and it is, provided you know how to eat it. It doesn’t last forever.
When you try to remove one and put something else into it, the rules of the game change. It’s not always easy to convey that message to consumers, that their crackers aren’t going to live forever.
Other kinds of oils have been interesterified. You can take any solid fat and mix it with a liquid oil in the presence of an enzyme, you can make these tailored fats without trans fats in them. But this is a very expensive process and they still haven’t perfected it.
Q: What about the new kinds of “natural” flavors?
A: Vanilla comes from an orchid. It’s expensive. It’s potent. American have done a remarkable job making people yearn for vanilla. Vanilla ice cream. There’s nobody who doesn’t like it.
Today there’s a new science called synthetic biology or synbio. Synbio has figured out that you can use certain types of yeast to create some of these products or some of these materials without having to go to a vanilla plant. Depending on the kind of food you give the yeast or the conditions you grow it in, yeast can produce, through fermentation, vanillin; and give you a material that’s very similar to vanilla. And remember it comes through fermentation and fermentation, according to the FDA today, can still be classified as natural. So you can still say ‘natural flavor.’
So the question then is, is the vanilla flavor or the saffron flavor that came from genetically modified yeast better for you, safer for you, or easier on your pocketbook? It’s sometimes easier on the planet because you’re not killing that many plants. Is that better than the chemical vanillin?
We don’t know what we don’t know.