Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Coloring Your Perception of Food

Coloring Your Perception of Food
By Emma Gottschall

                  Today, it’s common to see articles that read “A Dangerous Rainbow” or “What are we feeding our children”. The conversation around safety of colors is being led by popular food activists like the “Food Babe”, and artificial food colors have come under fire. Push back from consumers has led top food manufacturers like Kraft and Mars to begin removing artificial food colors from their products. But why are consumers fighting for the death of artificial food dyes and if they are dangerous, why hasn’t the FDA banned them already?
Food dyes have been used for thousands of years, originating around 1500 B.C. These original food dyes came from natural sources like saffron, squid ink, and certain flowers. With the advent of food colorants, food vendors had the ability to misrepresent their products—often for economic gain—by making lower quality foods more appealing to consumers. Often these colorants were toxic, like copper which was used to color pickled vegetables in the 1800’s and Scheele’s green, containing arsenic, which was used to color candies in the early 1900s. Today, the FDA regulates the use of synthetic and natural food colors in Foods, Drugs, and Cosmetics. Some food dyes (eg: Red #40) can cause sensitivities, and so food manufacturers are required to label their usage in food products.
                  Much of the current controversy over food dyes is their potential to promote hyperactivity in children. Hyperactive behavior has been linked to children who suffer from ADHD, and some studies imply that artificial food colors may affect children without behavioral conditions. These studies have prompted the EU to restrict the use of these artificial colors; requiring disclosure text on products with these colorants.
                  The Center for Science in the Public Interest is petitioning the FDA for the second time, to ban the use of all Artificial Food Colors in the food industry. After an initial petition in 2011, an FDA committee ruled that there was not enough conclusive evidence that food dyes cause hyperactivity. The committee concluded that more research was needed before they could prohibit the use of synthetic colors.
                  Since the 1970s,  several studies, often using exclusion diets to study what happens when artificial food colors are removed from the diet have shown improvements in children’s behavior and attention when artificial colors are removed from the diet. However, these diets usually remove other food additives, like preservatives, at the same time; making it difficult to identify a single cause for the behavior changes. Not to mention these studies often use parental or teacher observations to measure child behavior, which is difficult to compare.
One cause of these behavioral effects might be related to aspirin sensitivities. Although pain relievers may seem completely unrelated to food dyes, some food colors, including Yellow #5,have a similar chemical structure to aspirin, both contain salicylic acid residues. In fact, many exclusion diets recommended to treat behavioral problems suggest removing foods containing natural salicylates for the same reason. Other researchers hypothesize that tartrazine (yellow #5) might bind Zinc in the blood. Zinc is necessary for proper brain function and deficiencies can cause behavioral changes. When tartrazine is excreted in urine, any bound zinc would also be excreted.
                  With growing consumer concerns, retailers are reformulating their products with natural colorants. But consumers have an expectation that some foods need to be brightly colored—and those vibrant shades are often difficult to achieve without the use of artificial food dyes. General Mills is one of many retailers who understands that education is key, and has begun a campaign to show consumers what their foods will look like with natural food colors. If people aren’t prepared for these changes, they may avoid foods creating food waste. Consumers want bright colors and right now there aren’t many natural colors which can replace these bright synthetic dyes. Understanding what the switch will entail is important before artificial colors can be completely replaced. If Cheetos were suddenly pale instead of neon there might not be riots in the streets, but there would certainly be complaints!

Examples of snack food seasonings containing artificial food colors (A,C) and their counterparts made with natural food colors (B,D).

Food Safety Testing with Bacterial Vigilantes: Bacteriocins

Food Safety Testing with Bacterial Vigilantes: Bacteriocins
By Alex Rogers

            Food safety is a topic that concerns everyone. We all eat, thus we all should take into account the current state of the food that goes on our forks and into our bodies. If you’re eating right now, grab a forkful and take a look at your food. A real close look. Could there be something else on there, besides what you’re intending to eat? Some microscopic organism swimming through the mayonnaise in your potato salad? Miniature bugs, impossible to see with the naked eye, living in luxury on the surface of the beef in your fried rice?
            Don’t get grossed out yet. Though it’s true that a one hundred percent bacteria free food is impossible as microorganisms exist everywhere (like the millions that colonize your skin and gut as is), the bacteria that cause harm are generally well controlled by the food production industry anything reaches your table. Generally, that is. The FDA displays recall data on their website; a list of foods pulled from the shelves every week to help prevent disease outbreak. But not every potential pathogen is detected before it goes out on the shelves or into the restaurants we visit, which is why events such as a widespread Listeria outbreak of Blue Bell dairy products or the multi-state Chipotle catastrophe in December of 2015 happened.
            Why do these things occur? Most likely it is due to a lack of manpower and time. It’s physically impossible to check every every sample of food at food production companies. Even if it were possible to do it all, you simply couldn’t test every sample to begin with as then you’d have nothing left to sell. You could find negative results in all of your products but the one positive that somehow snuck by can shut it all down.
            Besides an inability to test every company in the most thorough of manner, the other reason food products may go out contaminated and then force a recall boils down to the methods we use to make sure the product is safe. Numerous techniques used in the lab are extremely dated, think decades old. We use agar plates: jelly like substances that have been modified to select for the specific evil bacteria we try to avoid like E. coli O157:H7, Salmonella, or Listeria. But their precision is lacking, often picking out similar, non-harmful bacteria in the process and creating false positives, in addition to taking 5 – 7 days to get these final results.
            We have expensive equipment that can break down the bacteria to its DNA and determine if the specific baddie is present at this subcellular level by matching up specific fragments to past data. Using this technique is much quicker than the agars mentioned above, but also takes a good deal more training to accomplish correctly and generally still relies on pre-enrichment or enrichment steps that allow the bacteria to grow in their most favorable conditions.
            However, the most problematic of complications with the agars and the machines is that they just aren’t one hundred percent perfect even when everything is going right. They can’t detect bacteria below a certain number and that means a food sample contaminated with just a few cells of Listeria can pass inspection, go to the grocery store, experience exponential growth in colony size, and then cause sickness in future buyers of the product.
            Innovation really needs to take place in the food safety field, all the way back to the first steps of just determining if there is a safety concern to begin with. Most of the new technology involves improving detection methods, the final step in a food safety assessment of a product. It gets the emphasis because this is the result we want: is the bacteria there or not? How much of it is there? Is this food safe to consume? In the end, though, improving detection has its limits and those limits are still the initial amount of bacteria present when that sample gets checked. Additionally, when checking for the safety of the food product, not only is the presence of bacteria important to know, but the type of bacteria as well.
            What’s being done to improve these detection techniques then? A lot, actually. The most interesting of this new technology uses a bacteria’s own structure against it: bacteriocins. Bacteriocins are small bits of protein fragments isolated from bacteria and new research has shown they can be very effective at grabbing ahold of bacteria and keeping them in place to allow easy detection testing. How does it work? You coat a surface, say a tube, with the bacteriocins, attach some electrical monitoring device to the tube, and pass your food sample through the center. The bacteriocins, claws reaching out into the liquid of the food sample, grab and bind to the bacteria that passes by. These interactions create chemical changes that translate into electrical changes that trigger the monitoring device, thus alerting the watchful food microbiologist of the presence of the target bacteria.
There are two important parts to this method that make it invaluable in food safety testing. The first is the fact that the bacteriocin’s binding ability is species specific. Certain bacteriocins bind to certain bacteria and thus, if you’re seeing a reading, that means not only is bacteria present, but specifically the bacteria you are looking for. In addition, these chemical and electrical signals are detected at any interaction. What does this mean? Just one interaction of bacteria with bacteriocin will create a response, meaning detection can occur at exceptionally low initial levels of contamination.
            Is this technology being used now? Unfortunately, no. A lot more testing needs to take place first. Results with actual food samples have been spotty, in no small part because of the mentioned complexity that comes with trying to tell if a food is safe or not. Not to fear, the research is ongoing and food products will be made safer and will be ensured at higher standards as time goes by. Food recalls and outbreaks may not stop completely, but they can be reduced to an infrequent and rare state. Take a deep breath, there are a lot of people whose one goal in life is to make sure the food you are eating is safe. Now take that bite still sitting on your fork.