Outrage over “pink slime” that rippled across the nation recently was fueled by the use of ammonia to produce the beef filler. The pink slime story has made consumers aware that ammonium hydroxide is widely used by the food industry as a processing agent in many products. Even though using ammonia to process food is considered safe, pink slime has shed light on the issue of transparency in food labeling.
Pink slime burgers
Ammonia in food became a hot button issue recently with stories about pink slime, a filler for ground beef the that food industry would rather be known as “finely textured beef.” Pink slime is refined from contaminated slaughterhouse waste and sprayed with ammonium hydroxide (ammonia diluted with water) to kill pathogens such as salmonella and E.coli.
Ammonium hydroxide in food
Most consumers probably aren’t aware that the noxious chemical they associate with cleaning products was cleared for industrial use in food processing by U.S. health officials about 40 years ago. Ammonium hydroxide and similar chemicals are used as processing agents in dozens of foods, including soft drinks, soups, canned vegetables, baked goods and chocolate.
Food industry experts claim the public is misinformed about the use of ammonia as a processing agent. Angela Laury-Shaw, assistant professor of food science and human nutrition at Iowa State University, told KCRG News in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, that ammonium hydroxide should not be confused with the ammonia used as a cleaning agent, a hazardous chemical.
Food processing agents
As a processing aid, Laury-Shaw said ammonium hydroxide is used to cause bacterial walls to break down. She called the compound a “synthetic, food-grade gas” that does not stay in the meat after packaging. Because ammonium hydroxide is considered “generally recognized as safe” by the government, it doesn’t have to be listed on food labels.
Other food processing agents include natural substances such as citric acid from lemon juice; grape seed extract; rosemary, thyme and spices, such as pepper. Chlorine and lactic acids are used to control bacteria and mold on produce, including cantaloupe and watermelon. Even water, used on eggs and other items, is considered a processing aid.
Other ammonia laced foods
Pink slime has been getting all the attention, but ammonia turns up in many processed foods in even higher amounts than the notorious meat filler. According to the University of Michigan Risk Science Center, a pink slime burger contains 0.02 grams of ammonia per 100 grams of meat. Here are 10 foods the center has identified with more ammonia than the pink slime burger:
- Cheese: Domestic bleu cheese topped the list with 0.138 grams of ammonia per 100 grams. Others include cheddar (0.11), beer cheese (0.092) and American cheese (0.081)
- Salami: 0.11 grams of ammonia per 100 grams
- Peanut butter: 0.049 grams per 100
- Mayonnaise: 0.041 grams per 100
- Ketchup: 0.035
- Gelatin: 0.034
- Onions: 0.027
- Potato chips: 0.024
- Brewer’s yeast: 0.022.
- Margarine: 0.021
Avoid processed foods
The food industry says processing agents make America’s food safer. Food industry critics say the ammonium hydroxide issue highlights the need for greater transparency in food labeling. Meantime, undisclosed food additives will continue to proliferate in the food supply.
On a personal level the solution is simple and immediate: simply avoid processed foods.