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A New Food Additive: Good or Bad?

It's hard to beat the New York Times, my favorite newspaper in the world (although USA Today comes awfully close). Yesterday, they cast a bright light on new food additives created by the San Diego-based company Senomyx, including a chemical that tricks the taste buds into sensing sugar or salt even when it isn't there. Most of these chemicals have no flavor of their own, but instead work by activating or blocking receptors in the mouth that are responsible for taste.

The ultimate goal: To enhance or replicate the taste of sugar, salt and monosodium glutamate (MSG) in foods.

By adding one of these chemicals, processed food manufacturers could reduce the sugar in a cookie or salt in a can of soup by as much as 50 percent while retaining the same sweetness or saltiness. For example, adding a Senomyx chemical to a can of chicken noodle soup could cut the amount of sodium from 2,300 mg (nearly the entire daily government-recommended amount of sodium) to about 1,500 mg.

If you're not concerned yet, consider this: The Senomyx chemicals were formulated, using many of the same research techniques that biotechnology companies apply in creating new drugs. Although some so-called food safety experts are thrilled about these developments, they urge more testing before this product is introduced into processed foods.

Two more things to keep in mind:

  • Unlike artificial sweeteners, Senomyx's chemicals will be lumped into the artificial flavors labeling on processed foods, and not be listed separately, so how will you really know what's in that can of chicken soup?
  • Four companies -- Campbell Soup, Nestle, Coca-Cola and Kraft -- are vying for the exclusive rights to use these chemicals in a number of their products, although which ones haven't been determined yet.

Sounds an awful lot like the campaign for Splenda, now being marketed as "Made from sugar so it tastes like sugar," although it's anything but that. Just another reason you should be shopping for organic, unprocessed foods. If you're unsure how to make the switch, I urge you to read Colleen Huber's awesome article on shopping for organic foods smartly and cheaply.

New York Times April 6, 2005 Subscription Required

Wilmington Star News April 6, 2005

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