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For the record

Bisin: Is this the food industry's Holy Grail?

A new preservative could keep food fresh indefinitely, but there are drawbacks.

Today the Telegraph published an article on the potential of a new food preservative called bisin that keeps food fresher for longer. The article describes how this could help protect vulnerable populations from E. coli and Salmonella poisoning and reduce the £5 billion worth of uneaten food thrown away by households each year. The author asks “is it something to be applauded – or to be concerned about?”. The author thinks adding a “cocktail of chemicals” to food is wrong and that “there is no proof that the sheer accumulation of chemical preservatives in our food is harmless.” She also describes irradiation of food as “warfare on your lamb cutlets”.

We have asked experts to respond to specific concerns in the article.

Dr Andrew Wadge, Chief Scientist at the FSA, said: “The ‘cocktail’ description implies that, while individual substances may be considered safe at current levels of exposure, they may interact with each other and create unforeseen effects. But the natural world is a ‘cocktail of chemicals’ so our bodies are used to dealing with a mix of substances. Current research supports the view that some types of food additive can have similar effects as each other, and this is taken into account in the risk assessments that underpin the approval process. The interactions most likely to lead to unforeseen effects would occur from combining individual additives that are not considered safe, and therefore not approved for use.”

Dr Nick Evans, Senior Lecturer in Radiochemistry at Loughborough University, said: “All the time everything on the planet is exposed to naturally occurring ionising radiation: this means that the sheep the lamb cutlet has come from will have lived with ionising radiation since birth. In fact, all living matter emits ionising radiation because it contains the element potassium. There is absolutely no evidence that the irradiation of food causes any danger to human health.”

The author of the article was concerned that some of the chemicals added to food to preserve it sound obscure. “When I see the words orthophenyl phenol in an ingredients list, I am more inclined to tip the plate’s contents onto a pot plant than eat it. Do we want sodium ethyl p-hydroxybenzoate, gamma-tocopherol or dodecyl gallate in our food?”.

Derek Lohmann, research chemist, said in Making Sense of Chemical Stories “If someone came into your house and offered you a cocktail of butanol, iso amyl alcohol, hexanol, phenyl ethanol, tannin, benzyl alcohol, caffeine, geraniol, quercetin, 3-galloyl epicatchin,3-galloyl epigallocatchin and inorganic salts, would you take it? It sounds pretty ghastly. If instead you were offered a cup of tea, you would probably take it. Tea is a complex mixture containing the above chemicals in concentrations that vary depending on where it is grown.”

There is more information on food additives in our food additives forum and on radiation in Making Sense of Radiation.

Author: Sense About Science

Document type: For The Record

Published: 16 August 2011

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