From the Los Angeles Times Op-Ed page:

From a Chinese oil refinery to your Twinkie

Food makers don't often know where the chemicals in their products come from.

By Steve Ettlinger

STEVE ETTLINGER is the author of, most recently, "Twinkie, Deconstructed."

May 29, 2007

WHEN I began researching the ingredients for Twinkies, I naively thought that their raw materials were extracted from nuts, beans, fruit, seeds or leaves, and that they came from the United States. I was looking to link places with foods — along the lines of California wine or Maine lobster, but for thiamine mononitrate. It turned out that I was way off.

Although eight of the ingredients in the beloved little snack cake come from domestic corn and three from soybeans, there are others — including thiamine mononitrate — that come from petroleum. Chinese petroleum. Chinese refineries and Chinese factories. And there are other unexpected ingredients that are much harder to trace. So much for the great "All-American" snack food.

When you bite into a Twinkie, you are chewing on an international nexus of suppliers. Most of our processed foods — salad dressing, ice cream, meal-replacement drinks — are processed with foreign additives: essential ones, like B vitamins for fortifying flour and the preservative sorbic acid, as well as Malaysian or Indonesian palm oil products, European wheat gluten, Peruvian colorants, Chadian gums and Swiss niacin, made from Swiss water, Swiss air (nitrogen) and North Atlantic or Middle Eastern oil. It's a nice contrast to recall that Champagne comes only from Champagne, France.

Like many other industries, food additives have been off-shored. No major domestic vitamin or sorbic acid manufacturers remain in the U.S. Our last vitamin C plant closed in 2005 — in fact, it closed as I was speaking to an employee about a tour — and most of our artificial colors and flavors come from abroad as well. Our chemical industry is rapidly dismantling its expensive domestic plants and either forming joint ventures with Chinese companies or simply buying chemicals from them. This leads to lower food and pharmaceutical prices, but perhaps at the cost of quality control.

How can you have quality control when you don't even know where the ingredient is coming from? During my Twinkie research, I was particularly surprised that many American food additive "manufacturers" buy chemicals, especially vitamins, from distributors and do not know, or don't ask, where they come from. The distributors usually sing the same song, as they often buy from importers, and the importers buy from exporters who — no surprise — are often not able or willing to identify all of their sources.

Now that the tainted pet food scandal has made us more aware that many additives come from overseas, and China in particular — and that some unscrupulous or, at the very least, unprofessional Chinese manufacturers mix cheaper and poisonous adulterants into some food or pharmaceutical products — most of us would like to see some action. What can be done?

First, Chinese and any other foreign manufacturers should fall under both their home country's and the U.S. government's regulations and controls. This would take a concerted education effort in China, which has the challenge of teaching small, uneducated and very independent entrepreneurs the market value of meeting American standards.

Second, we need to increase U.S. inspection of imported foods and additives. This means increased personnel and budgets and a serious commitment from the government to a tight, professional program. The Food and Drug Administration should classify additive adulteration the same way the Agriculture Department classifies meat contamination: totally unacceptable. Congress would have to reverse the trend of underfunding the FDA.

Finally, as consumers, we can swallow hard and decide to pay just a little more for well-inspected processed food — or eat more local fruits, vegetables and whole grains and buy minimally processed and sustainably farmed foods.

Smart processed-food and pharmaceutical companies are scrambling to find guaranteed safe alternatives. But consumers must be prepared to pay a higher price for safe food — and to make informed choices about what ingredients go into our food and where they come from.

If you want to have your snack cake and eat it too, you have to remember: You are what you eat.

Copyright 2007 Los Angeles Times 


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From the Los Angeles Times


China's additives on menu in U.S.

It is the leading supplier of many ingredients in packaged food. Barring the imports is difficult.

By Don Lee

Times Staff Writer

May 18, 2007

SHANGHAI — As the recall of tainted pet food mushroomed into an international scandal, two of the largest U.S. food manufacturers put out a blanket order to their American suppliers: No more ingredients from China.

The directive from Mission Foods Corp. and Tyson Foods Inc., made quietly this month, underscored consumers' and manufacturers' fears about the safety of imported food ingredients after contaminated wheat products from China killed and sickened cats and dogs in the United States.

The problem is, what Mission and Tyson want is next to impossible.

In the last decade, China has become the world's leading supplier of many food flavorings, vitamins and preservatives. Like fingernail clippers, playing cards, Christmas ornaments and other items, some food additives are available in vast quantities only from China.

China exported $2.5 billion of food ingredients to the United States and the rest of the world in 2006, an increase of 150% from just two years earlier, according to Chinese industry estimates. It is now the predominant maker of vanilla flavoring, citric acid and varieties of vitamin B such as thiamine, riboflavin and folic acid — nutrients commonly added to processed flour goods such as Mission tortillas and Tyson breaded chicken.

"It would be somewhat difficult to move away from all the vitamins in China," said Monte White, president of Research Products Co., a large supplier of nutrients for flour mixes. He said his Salina, Kan.-based company was stepping up its testing of imported goods despite having had "very consistent results" from China in the last five years.


Little oversight in China

China's overall food safety record is poor. Use of chemical fertilizers and toxic pesticides is heavy. Fraud and corruption often thwart what lax controls exist. In recent years, U.S. officials have issued alerts about Chinese honey tainted with a harmful antibiotic; Chinese candy containing sulfites that can cause fatal allergic reactions; and infant formula missing vital nutrients, which in China left a dozen babies dead in 2004.

A small group of large manufacturers dominate the production of food ingredients in China, but hundreds if not thousands of small, virtually anonymous businesses — such as the two linked to the pet-food scandal — operate in an industry lacking tough standards and enforcement.

"Some of them are driven by profits; you can see dollar signs in their eyes," said Jan Willem Roben, head of Vision Ingredients, a Shanghai-based trader of food additives.

In the U.S., major food manufacturers often don't know where all their ingredients originate. Mission, a Texas-based unit of Mexican food giant Gruma, would not comment about that or its directive, but said it was working with its suppliers to ensure the products were safe. Arkansas-based Tyson, one of the nation's largest providers of beef and chicken, did not respond to interview requests.

Many packaged foods contain dozens of items from around the world, acquired through complex networks of traders and brokers, before they get processed at manufacturing plants where companies have more direct oversight.

"Until now, companies just didn't care about commodity additives," said Laszlo Somogyi, a retired senior consultant at SRI International, a nonprofit research institute in Menlo Park, Calif. "But that might be changing now. This was a warning," he said, referring to the pet-food debacle.

Somogyi believes tainted food additives pose a relatively low risk to humans because such ingredients are used in tiny amounts in any given product. Still, it wasn't until the pet-food poisoning that people learned that melamine, an industrial chemical banned in foods in the U.S., had been widely added to animal feed in China to artificially boost its protein level.

"The same thing could have happened in the human food chain," Somogyi said.

Chinese-made ingredients are probably found in every aisle of American supermarkets. Consider that American favorite, the Hostess Twinkie. Of its 39 ingredients, at least half a dozen — such as vitamin B compounds, the preservative sorbic acid and red and yellow colorings — are most likely made in China, says Steve Ettlinger, author of the book, "Twinkie, Deconstructed."

In an interview from New York, Ettlinger said he couldn't be sure where Interstate Bakeries Corp., the maker of Twinkies, obtained those ingredients. The Kansas City, Mo., company wouldn't help him with his research, he said, and food makers rarely list the origin of individual ingredients on packages. Nor do they necessarily want to know where it all comes from.

"The more you know, the pickier you get and the more it costs," Ettlinger said.

David Leavitt, Interstate Bakeries' vice president of snack marketing, said he wasn't aware of any Twinkie ingredients made in China. But in a brief e-mail statement, he indicated that Interstate was polling some of its smaller vendors to determine whether they obtained any products from China.

"This process involves gathering and verifying information from hundreds of companies," Leavitt said.

That process could eventually lead to a company such as Ningbo Wanglong Group, the world's largest maker of sorbic acid — a preservative made from natural gas that helps keep mold off baked goods and other products. The 14-year-old private company, located about 120 miles south of Shanghai, produces 1,000 tons of the white crystals every month. About one-third of that is exported to the U.S., said Li Ming, the company's office director.

Less than a decade ago, such food additives were made mainly in Europe and the United States. But China's looser environmental regulations, cheaper energy costs and lower wages helped shift the industry to Asia. Ningbo Wanglong's average salary is less than $200 a month. Giant food chemical makers such as BASF of Germany and Dutch-based DSM have teamed up with Chinese partners and cut back at plants in the West.

Ningbo Wanglong says it sells sorbic acid for about $1.30 a pound, including shipping charges to the U.S. The cost of the same product made in the United States: about $4.

For food companies, switching to non-Chinese vendors would almost certainly increase their costs, though the move could give them a marketing advantage over rivals.

Li welcomed visitors to tour his company's 80-acre campus, where he said 400 employees, many of them wearing white gloves and gray uniforms, work in 20 high-tech facilities.

"We have an analysis room, a quality lab and other quality control departments," he said, adding that 70 workers have advanced degrees.

But for every additive maker such as Ningbo Wanglong, scores of small operations compete in China, offering their cut-rate goods in food industry journals, at trade fairs and on the Internet. On the Chinese e-commerce site Alibaba.com, at least 43 businesses claimed to produce sorbic acid, a complicated compound that requires considerable investment and government certifications.

For many other ingredients, though, people don't need much more than basic knowledge of chemistry and some simple equipment: a kettle, a scale and a dryer.

"The problem is that many small companies don't register their products as food additives, thus avoiding supervision," said He Jiguo, director of the food nutrition and safety department at China Agricultural University in Beijing. Instead, he said, these companies classify their goods as nonfood items. Many food additives also have industrial applications; citric acid, for example, is used to clean boilers and etch concrete floors.

He says Chinese government officials should boost enforcement and penalties. Currently, violators of food-safety rules are subject to fines of no more than a few thousand dollars and a temporary stop order.

But He doesn't expect any swift changes. Of the 1,750 government-approved food additives, quality standards have been established for only about 250, according to a report last year by Major China, a food-industry consulting firm in Shanghai.

"There is no clear food-classification system, no distinct definition for the range that the food includes, no related regulation about residues that additives leave on foods," the report said. "All these bring loopholes for additives manufacturing and usage, give illegal traders opportunities and affects customers' trust toward food additive safety."


U.S. inspection spotty

Adding to U.S. consumers' concerns, inspection on the American end is spotty. The Food and Drug Administration has said it checks just 1% of all imported grocery items and food ingredients, excluding meat and poultry products. The agency didn't respond to interview requests for this article.

U.S. food ingredient suppliers can only hope that the pet-food scare blows over. Some managers say they are getting 50 calls a day from customers and consumers. They are struggling to reassure them that the goods from China are safe, promising more tests and tighter monitoring of vendors. But they also say that American food manufacturers will have little choice but to back away from demands to go without any Chinese additives.

"They're going to have to compromise," said a sales manager at a major food additive supplier who did not want to be identified by name. "At this point, it's simply impossible."



Cao Jun in the Times' Shanghai bureau contributed to this report.



From China to you

China has become the world's leading supplier of food ingredients, including flavorings, vitamins and preservatives. A look at some of the most common food additives imported into the United States from China:

Citric acid

Gives foods a tart taste and enhances fruit flavors

Used in: Soda, fruit-flavored beverages, candy, flavored syrups


Sorbic acid

A preservative that inhibits the growth of mold and yeasts

Used in: Cheese and other dairy products, baked goods, wine



An ingredient, often made from wood pulp, in artificial vanilla

Used in: Chocolates, candies, cookies



A natural sweetener found in birch trees, strawberries, raspberries and plums

Used in: Sugar-free gum, candy


Folic acid

A B vitamin that helps prevent fetal spinal deformities

Used in: Pasta, bread, cereal, flour, corn meal, rice


Sources: WISER, Census Bureau. Graphics reporting by Scott Wilson

Copyright 2007 Los Angeles Times


From Metro Santa Cruz:  



From Newsweek Magazine, March 5, 2007

MMMM, Tasty Chemicals

A new book ‘deconstructs’ a Twinkie and analyses all 39 ingredients.  Industrial-strength junk food, anyone?

By Anne Underwood

As Steve Ettlinger dropped down a Wyoming mine shaft, plummeting 1,600 feet in an open-mesh cage, he wondered how many other food writers had ever donned hard hats and emergency breathing equipment in pursuit of a story. But it was too late to turn back. He'd promised his editor a book tracing the ingredients in a Hostess Twinkie to their origins--and one of them was down this shaft. At the bottom, he and his hosts climbed into an open Jeep and hurtled for 30 terrifying minutes through pitch-black tunnels. Their destination: the site where a mineral called trona--the raw ingredient of baking soda--was being clawed out of a rock face by giant machines. "To say that this does not suggest Twinkies or any other food product would be an understatement," observes Ettlinger. "There you are at an open rock face, wondering why they do all this for the sake of a little snack cake."

If you've ever puzzled over why packaged foods contain "polysorbate 60" or "mono and diglycerides," Ettlinger's new book, "Twinkie, Deconstructed," is a treat you'll want to try. Chapter by chapter, Ettlinger--the author of previous food books like "Beer for Dummies"--decodes all 39 ingredients in the little creme-filled cakes.

He explains their uses and the processes by which raw materials are "crushed, baked, fermented, refined and/or reacted into a totally unrecognizable goo or powder with a strange name," which then appears on a label full of other incomprehensible and barely pronounceable ingredients. Unraveling it all was a major undertaking--and Ettlinger received no help from Hostess and its parent company, Interstate Brands Corp., despite appealing directly to the Vice President of Cake.

At the heart of the book is the fundamental question: why is it you can bake a cake at home with as few as six ingredients, but Twinkies require 39? And why do many of them seem to bear so little resemblance to actual food? The answer: To stay fresh on a grocery-store shelf, Twinkies can't contain anything that might spoil, like milk, cream or butter. Once you remove such real ingredients, something has to take their place--and cellulose gum, lecithin and sodium stearoyl lactylate are a good start. Add the fact that industrial quantities of batter have to pump easily through automated tubes into cake molds, and you begin to get the idea.

Even so, it can be unsettling to learn just how closely the basic ingredients in processed foods resemble industrial materials. Corn dextrin, a common thickener, is also the glue on postage stamps and envelopes. Ferrous sulfate, the iron supplement in enriched flour and vitamin pills, is used as a disinfectant and weedkiller. Is this cause for concern? Ettlinger says no, though you wouldn't want a diet that consists solely of Twinkies. Ultimately, all food, natural and otherwise, is composed of chemical compounds--and normal ingredients like salt have industrial applications, too. Still, it gives you pause when he describes calcium sulfate, a dough conditioner, as "food-grade plaster of Paris."

In the end, you may learn more than you really wanted to about the Twinkie-Industrial Complex, as Ettlinger calls it. But you will never read a label the same way again.


                                     Food Science

Twinkies contain actual flour, sugar, salt, baking soda, water and a trace of egg. But the rest of the 39 ingredients are not generally what you find in your pantry. A sampling:

The Filling:

Shortening (in the form of partially hydrogenated vegetable oil and/or beef fat) is the main ingredient. Polysorbate 60 is a gooey substance that helps replace cream and eggs at a fraction of the cost. It's derived from corn, palm oil and petroleum.

Cellulose gum gives the creme filling a smooth, slippery feel.

Artificial vanillin is synthesized in petrochemical plants. The real thing comes from finicky tropical orchids that are pollinated by hand on the one day they bloom.

The Cake:

Lecithin is an emulsifier made from soy. It's also used in paint to keep pigments evenly dispersed.

Diacetyl mimics the taste of butter, since the real stuff would go rancid on a store shelf.

Cornstarch is a common thickener. But it's more often used to make cardboard and packing peanuts.

Yellow No. 5, Red No. 40 give the cake the golden look of eggs.

Sorbic acid, the only actual preservative in Twinkies, comes from petroleum.

Twinkie Facts:

Calories: 145 each

Shelf life: 25 days--not years, as urban legend would have it

History: In 1930, James Dewar found a way to use idle baking pans. He named the cakes after seeing an ad for "Twinkle-Toe" shoes. Shelf life was just two to three days.

COPYRIGHT 2007 Newsweek, Inc. All rights reserved. Any reuse, distribution or alteration without express written permission of Newsweek is prohibited. For permission: www.newsweek.com