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Speaking of Caramel

March 30, 2011

Yesterday’s post about caramelizing onions reminded me of one of the most crucial things anyone interested in cooking needs to learn: knife skills. I really like what the guy behind Corduroy Orange has to say on the matter, and I think he has a great novice-friendly approach to explaining and teaching his methods.

You can now find a convenient pathway there via a new link listed under the Important Food Resources section of the blogroll. By the way, holy cow that’s a long blogroll. I may have to start segregating the less active blogs into some kind of X-File at the bottom of the list. But that will have to wait for the time being.

As long as I’ve got your attention on the right side of the page, you might notice the new box at the very top right. That’s there so I don’t have to mention [you-know-what] again. Mrs. Fussy thought all the talk of the [thing in the box] was starting to get a little tedious. So today is a completely [you know] free day.

While I was revisiting Corduroy Orange searching for the link to advise you how to cut onions so that they caramelize evenly, I happened upon a post from earlier this month. Apparently there was a news story that I missed all about caramel. But this isn’t caramel that’s made in a pan, it’s caramel that’s made in a lab. And some of it is pretty nasty stuff. Plus it happens to be in a ton of things.

So what is caramel coloring? The full scoop was reported in Eating Well.

But the executive summary is that there are a few versions of caramel coloring. The nastiest among them, the one that is used in Coke and Pepsi is made with ammonium and sulfite compounds. Here are the two most important paragraphs from the article:

When ammonia is used to make these caramel colorings, a number of chemical byproducts are formed.  Two of these, 2-methylimidazole and 4-methylimidazole have been shown in government studies to promote lung, liver, and thyroid tumors in laboratory rats and mice.

In a study published last month in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, scientists at the University of California at Davis found significant levels of 4methylimidazole in two unspecified brands of cola.  For that reason, the Center for Science in the Public Interest is today asking the Food and Drug Administration to bar the use of ammonia- and ammonia-sulfite process caramel colorings.

Good times.

The only problem is that when products are labeled for consumers there is no information about which of the four formulations of caramel coloring are being used.

What kills me is that this additive is in food products purely for marketing purposes. Cheap balsamic vinegar wouldn’t look as deep and dark without it. I have no idea what color cola would be on its own. I kind of shudder to think about it. But check the labels for packaged goods in your house and I’ll bet you find some. It’s in Asian sauces and marinades. It’s even in my beloved Cel-Ray.

I’ve known for a while that food scientists have avoided consuming this coloring agent in their own lives. But before this story I never really fully understand the reasons. I could just assume it was really bad stuff. At least now I know the details, and this is just ANOTHER reminder to check ingredient labels when you are at the market.

If you cannot pay that kind of attention to the fine print on product packaging while shopping for groceries, perhaps you can look them up online in advance of your purchase. The Wegmans website is great for this. Every product they sell has the ingredients clearly listed on the page. So you can find out, for example, that Kikkoman soy sauce has no caramel color while La Choy does.

It’s pretty sweet.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. March 30, 2011 10:05 am

    There’s a big debate about this within the gluten-free community. These days, you can feel pretty sure any products made in North America will use a caramel coloring that’s not derived from wheat or barley malt, but you have to be more cautious with products from abroad, supposedly. It’s a really annoying little thing to remember.

  2. Tonia permalink
    March 30, 2011 10:18 am

    I try to avoid all stuff like this… just because. Sometimes this is difficult, because as you said it is in many products. But, reading this really reinforces that sentiment. Thanks for sharing. :-)

    On somewhat the same topic…. [just came to mind] many people who do not eat meat or who are trying to eat “healthier,” replace meat with many of the vegetarian products out there. I am guilty of this to some degree. But, is this really better? No. I started to think about this after I read the Morningstar Farms label. EEK. I have been making a conscious effort to find alternatives, such as hummus, peanut butter, etc. I am sure there is caramel color in Morningstar. Hahaha.

  3. James permalink
    March 30, 2011 11:13 am

    So yesterday, browning and caramelization is a good thing and today it is the spawn of Satan? What gives? The Maillard reaction is what gives us the savory brown crust on steaks and burgers as well as onions. In onions, under high heat, natural sugars react with amino (yes just like ammonia) groups within proteins as well as with the sulfur containing compounds which give onions their characteristic flavor to produce the nice brown bits. The exact same reaction is happening when evil ammonia-sulfite process caramel coloring is made. The same compounds found in caramel color that are known carcinogens, are are coating your delicious onions along with hundreds of other harmful compounds.

    Usually I can take some food/chemical paranoia but praising a technique and then bashing it the next day is a bit much for me. The takeaway, consume things in moderation, your body will handle just about anything you can throw at it.

  4. Kerosena permalink
    March 30, 2011 1:37 pm

    “It’s even in my beloved Cel-Ray.”

    And the Buffalo Wing pretzels:

  5. March 30, 2011 6:06 pm

    Geez, I always thought caramel color was, y’know, caramel-derived, since caramel is brown. That’ll teach me to take the answer that makes sense.

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