Aspartame: Is it Safe?

What is Aspartame, and is it safe?

With the new sugar tax coming into effect from April 2018, it can be expected that companies will be using low calorie alternatives in their products even more frequently as a means to avoid paying any extra revenue, as you would anticipate they might.

For a number of years, there have been several food additives used as a substitute for sugar to sweeten food and beverages and one of the most popular is aspartame.  Aspartame is an artificial sweetener often used in soft drinks, chewing gum, sweets, yoghurts, crisps and vitamin tablets, not forgetting the little white sweetening tablets found in the small dispensers so many buy to use as an alternative to a spoonful of sugar in their tea or coffee.  It is approximately 200 times sweeter than sugar.  The intense sweetness means that only miniscule amounts are needed to sweeten products and so the calorie count is significantly reduced, indeed, in products where sugar would usually be the main calorific ingredient, it makes the calorie content far more palatable.  For those with the occasional craving for something sweet, this would seem to be the perfect solution.

As with any miracle product though, it is always worth digging a bit deeper.  The components that make up aspartame are phenylalanine, aspartic acid and methanol.  Once ingested, the body breaks aspartame down into those original three elements.  Phenylalanine is particularly dangerous for those who suffer from a very rare condition called, phenylketonuria.  These individuals’ bodies are unable to process phenylalanine meaning it can build up in their blood and brain, potentially causing brain damage, so it is important that they monitor what they are ingesting.  With such a toxic effect on this small percentage of the world’s population, it would seem prudent to exercise caution. 

There have been countless controversies about aspartame since it was first developed in 1965 and pronounced safe by the EU in 1994.  Some studies have claimed it causes, amongst other things, heart palpitations, headaches, dizziness, migraines, seizures, brain tumours, diabetes, cancer, epilepsy and even birth defects. It should be noted that none of these have been formally substantiated and that the European Food Safety Authority conducted a study in 2013 which concluded that aspartame was safe, however, these claims will not go away.  There is a constant flow of scare stories about aspartame which continues to cast a shadow of uncertainty over its safety.

In 2007, Marks & Spencer, Asda and Sainsbury’s all announced that they would no longer be using aspartame or any other artificial additives in their own brand products.  They now use some of the other alternative sweeteners that are available such as sucralose and sorbitol.  A product which is widely available and naturally occurring is Xylitol.  This has been known about for over half a century and can be extracted from birch trees or corn cobs so comes from a natural source, although it does have to go through a processing procedure to bring it to point of sale.

Avoiding sugar and replacing it with alternatives about whose side effects there is still debate is not the only option available to us.  A balanced diet including moderate amounts of sugar together with regular exercise is always to be endorsed and will help maintain good health but for those who suffer health issues which mean sugar is a no-go zone, then it’s worth doing your research about the type of sweeteners that are available so that you can make an informed choice about just what you’re putting into your body.

Is The Sugar Tax Justified?

Thoughts on the Sugar Tax

If you have a sweet tooth, you might have found the proposals to impose a tax on sugary drinks in the latest Budget slightly disappointing.  There is no denying that childhood obesity is a problem in the UK and that steps need to be taken to combat it, but is a sugar tax the right step to take?

From April 2018, the sugar tax will be levied upon producers, importers, retailers and consumers of any soft drinks which have added sugar.  Some alcoholic drinks, with a volume of up to 1.2% will also have the tax applied.  Fruit juices are exempt as they contain naturally occurring sugars, but purchasers will be advised to limit their consumption.  There will be two levels of tax; a lower rate of 18p per litre which will apply to those drinks which have 5g or more sugar per 100ml and a higher rate of 24p per litre for those drinks which have 8g or more sugar per 100ml.  Your standard 330ml can of coke contains 35g of sugar, the equivalent of 7 teaspoons, so will be hit hard.

Many organisations including Diabetes UK and the charity, Action on Sugar, have been campaigning for this outcome for some time and have welcomed the news.  It also has the backing of dentists as a means of reducing tooth decay.  A triumph for many it seems, but is sugar getting an unfair press?

Sugar is a naturally occurring carbohydrate and is present in the structure of most natural products in one form or another, e.g. fructose in fruit and lactose in milk.  We tend to think of it as it is most commonly used, in granulated crystal form, sourced from sugarcane and sugar beet.  It is used in baking, e.g. cakes and biscuits and is added to other foods for sweetening and flavour.  Sugar is also a natural preservative, causing bacteria to lose water which impedes its ability to live and multiply, prolonging the shelf life of many products.

It would not be unreasonable to say that sugar is essential in our diets because it is.  Sugar provides vital energy for our muscles and helps to keep our brains functioning effectively. There is a recommended daily allowance of added sugar per day of 30g or 7 teaspoons for adults.  The problem comes when too much is consumed as it can lead to all sorts of health problems including diabetes, obesity and tooth decay.  All these are on the rise amongst children.

Is a tax on sugar the answer to these issues and will it stop excessive intake?  It is true that there is almost an epidemic when it comes to childhood obesity but a hike in prices is unlikely to reduce consumption.  Most people that this is aimed at will continue to buy what they want and be prepared to pay the extra pennies, as we have seen with exorbitant petrol prices and 5p carrier bags.  It would be more effective to roll out an educational programme for adults and children, perhaps through television or social media, which presents them with the key information they need to know about sugar and added sugar in items like soft drinks so that they can make their own decisions and take action if required.

Producers are already looking at other ways to reduce added sugar and a popular method is to use alternative, synthetic sweeteners which are still, at this point, somewhat of an unknown quantity in terms of effects on the body.  Some groups do not want the tax to stop at soft drinks and are calling for it to be imposed on other goods such as sweets and confectionary.  Where will it all end?  Sugar should not necessarily be demonised, it does have its place and should be a small part of your staple diet, but in moderation and it is that moderation which should be encouraged and promoted in a helpful, informative way that gives the public the freedom to make their own choices.

Hepatitis E in Pork

There is usually one food scare or another in the media to keep us on our toes and, after the furore over horse meat found in some products had died down, the latest to hit the front pages is the risk of Hepatitis E in pork. This story broke last week in the papers but it is not news to everybody.  Several studies have already been carried out to investigate these reports and the findings are interesting.

Hepatitis E (HEV) is a virus that affects the liver and the main symptoms include jaundice, pale stools and darker than normal colouration of urine.  The good news is that it is a virus the body’s natural defence system can deal with and it usually resolves itself fairly quickly.  Some cases can be more serious for those with pre-existing immune conditions or pregnant women, so it is always advisable to see a doctor.

In countries where sanitation is poor, it is most commonly transmitted through water and food contaminated with sewage from infected people and animals.  In other countries, it can be spread from animals to humans, mostly through undercooked pork and sometimes processed pork.  HEV is widely found in pigs, hence the suspected risk.  It is highly unusual for humans to contract it from another human.

In recent years, there has been a significant rise in cases of HEV in a number of developed countries, including Japan, France, the Netherlands, the US and the UK.  Those mostly affected tend to be men over the age of 50.  A study was carried out in 2009-10 by the Animal Health and Veterinary Laboratories Agency in Weybridge that found there was evidence that the virus was potentially passed on during pork production.  They collected samples from slaughtered pigs at various points of manufacture, right through to the final product which lands on our shelves.  As a rule, the percentage of the virus found in samples of point of sale items was low, but it was discovered.  Of 63 sausages tested, 6 were found to contain the virus.

A later study in 2013, initiated by Defra and backed by other public bodies including the Food Standards Agency and Public Health England, concluded that, of the approximately 60,000 human cases of HEV in the UK each year, two thirds in England were NOT transmitted from UK pig products.

What does this mean for us?  It is apparent there is a very small risk that some point of sale pork products could contain HEV, however, most products you buy at the supermarket will be safe.   Make sure you buy your pork products from a trusted source.  All good suppliers will only purchase meat from approved outlets and abattoirs with robust HACCP and food safety management systems in place.  Since these studies were carried out, it is likely that even more stringent procedures will have been implemented by any good manufacturer.

The Food Standards Agency advises that, when cooking pork, it should be ‘thoroughly cooked until steaming hot throughout, the meat is no longer pink and the juices run clear.’  This will minimise any risk of any foodborne illness, not just HEV.

Finally, if we even need to say it, always remember to wash your hands thoroughly before and after preparing pork and clean and disinfect the equipment and utensils used thoroughly to avoid cross contamination!

 

What is Acrylamide?

We’ve all done it. We’ve popped the bread in the toaster and gone away and forgotten about it. The next thing we know, the smoke alarm’s going off and our toast resembles a lump of charcoal. Some of us will consign it to the dustbin, but others adhere to the old adage, waste not want not, and continue to consume it, attempting to overcome the burnt flavour with lashings of their favoured topping.

For years, there have been rumours circulating that burnt toast is carcinogenic but, realistically, is there any evidence for this?

Studies have shown that a chemical called acrylamide is formed naturally when starchy foods are cooked at high temperatures (anything above 120˚C). Food items that this applies to are potatoes in various forms, e.g. roast, chips, crisps etc., bread and some cereal products. The sugars in the foods react with naturally occurring amino acids when exposed to high temperatures to form acrylamide.

Scientists tested the impact of acrylamide on rodents and it was found that exposure to the chemical increased the risk of developing several types of cancer quite significantly. As a consequence of these results, food scientists are concerned that this evidence indicates there is a potential cancer risk to humans. There are a few caveats to this, however. It should be noted that the rodents were subjected to exceptionally large doses of the chemical, doses which would be far greater than any amount contained in your Sunday roast potatoes or a bag of crisps, for example. Studies in humans are still incomplete and are, at present, inconclusive. It is impossible to say that a chemical will affect animals and humans in exactly the same way so the results must be considered rationally and cautiously, but it is sensible to pay attention to the scientific findings and take some precautions.

This year, the Food Standards Agency has launched a campaign called, ‘Go for gold’. Contrary to how it might sound, they are not encouraging people to enter the Olympics, but have issued guidelines on how to attain the optimum shade of gold when cooking your starchy foods. With any form of cooking, whether it be frying, roasting or toasting, the goal should be to achieve a light golden colour. Cooking starchy food for too long and at too high a temperature will increase the amount of acrylamide. They also advise against keeping potatoes in the fridge as this can cause the sugars to multiply, thus raising the amount of acrylamide in the end product once cooked. Always check the guidelines on the packet when cooking things like oven chips. The food industry is attempting to do what it can to reduce the acrylamide concentrations in food so it would be prudent to follow their cooking guidelines.

It is easy to be alarmed by these reports about such staple fixtures of our diets, but it is important to remember that the studies on humans are inconclusive and that the risk is not yet substantiated. The Food Standards Agency recommends that a balanced and moderate diet including your standard 5 a day will help reduce the risk of cancer. Let moderation be our watchword and maybe that piece of toast really should just go in the bin.

 

Here is a video from the Food Standards Agency with some basic information on Acrylamide and their ‘Go for Gold’ Campaign.

Food Safety audit

10 tips for an Effective Food Safety Audit

How To Do An Effective Food Safety Audit

There are many benefits of carrying out regular audits, which include; honest self-assessment, giving feedback to management and identifying whether the systems, processes and procedures in place are working and meet the required objectives.  Audits should be proactive rather than reactive, and can identify potential future problems before they occur. Whether you are responsible for internal audits of your food premises, a third party auditor, or verifying HACCP and Food Safety Management Systems, here are some practical tips for carrying out an effective audit.

  1. Identify and ensure the competency of the auditor. The auditor / inspector should be highly knowledgeable and competent in food safety and HACCP (or the specific area which is to be audited). The auditor must be in full agreement about what is to be covered and the standards and set criteria thereof. This applies to internal as well as external audits.
  1. Before carrying out an audit it is essential to plan ahead! It has been said many times: “Failing to plan is planning to fail”. Planning is vital to a successful and effective audit. As well as establishing the clear aims and objectives of the inspection, planning should take into account practical things like; the size and complexity of the business, the amount of travelling involved, site restrictions (such as opening times etc.), level of in-house expertise and any language barriers of staff.
  1. Communication is an integral part of carrying out an audit. It is important that the auditor communicates clearly and concisely. Be polite, affable, and professional. Don’t be overly familiar or effusive, but at the same time do not be too serious or austere. When verbally questioning staff and auditees make use of open, leading, and sympathetic questioning techniques. A good auditor will not just check, but will watch, listen, and ask questions. When talking to employees do not become side-tracked or distracted. While some ‘small talk’ is acceptable and sometimes necessary, always stick to the point.
  1. The auditor should be impartial, fair and objective, and act with integrity.
  1. Be methodical and systematic. Carry out the audit in a coherent manner. For example, the auditor should go through what they are auditing in a logical order from the beginning to the end. It’s more than merely being guided through mechanically by the audit checklist! It’s really about linking things together and checking the process meets the procedure, and the corresponding documentation. Always take notes as you go, whether written or on a smartphone, iPad or tablet.
  1. The auditor should take photographs as and when necessary – but only of what is relevant to the audit. What can’t speak can’t lie! Again, best on a smaller device such as an iPad or smartphone, rather than a large camera. We tend to use the iPhone 6s, which are discreet and have a good built in camera.
  1. If an audit is carried out at a busy time – don’t get in the way and definitely do not spend time interviewing people. Most of the time should be spent observing working practices. Also, do not stay longer than necessary. As soon as the objectives have been met you should depart. On the other hand, never leave until you have made sufficient judgement and your outcomes have been achieved.
  1. It is fundamental that auditors keep up to date with latest industry trends, scientific and epidemiological research and information. For example, within the context of a food business, the threat of Campylobacter in raw chicken is a greater problem today than salmonella. Advice may change as understanding increases.
  1. Always write up the audit report in a timely manner. This should be as close to the event as possible. Ensure that you write concisely and clearly. Avoid emotive or ‘flowery’ language. Write as dispassionately as possible. Opinions are fine, as long as they can be substantiated and are pertinent; however, reports should be written on fact and backed up by quantifiable and empirical evidence. Give clear recommendations and prioritised timescales which are practical, measurable, and achievable. Actions which need addressing immediately or within a few days should be dealt with and remedied at the time of visit, following verbal advice. However, it’s still good practice to record this in your report.
  1. When giving recommendations, it is very important that the auditor clearly distinguishes between recommendations based on best practice and legal requirements. Inexperienced auditors often get the two confused!

To learn more about being an effective auditor, contact us , and we’ll also let you have details of the next Level 3 Auditing and Inspection Skills training course that we are running in your area.

food allergy

The Difference Between a Food Allergy and Food Intolerance

Food Allergens: What’s the Difference between an Allergy and Intolerance?Food Intolerance

Some people react negatively to certain foods but does a dichotomy exist between an allergy and intolerance? If you have a food intolerance, it means that once you eat that food, your body cannot properly digest it. Or rather, your digestive system is irritated by that particular food or ingredient. If this is the case, eating that food will usually result in nausea, diarrhoea, cramps, abdominal pain, among other symptoms. Usually, even if you are intolerant to a certain food, you may be able to eat it without much trouble. You can do this by consuming only small amounts of the food, or substituting certain components, such as drinking lactose-free milk, for example, if you have lactose intolerance.

There are various reasons why one might develop an intolerance to a certain food. These include:

  • An absence of the enzyme required to digest a particular food, for instance in the case of lactose intolerance.
  • Toxins that may be present in contaminated food leading to food poisoning.
  • Some food additives that are used in preservation of foods may trigger attacks in sensitive people.
  • There are times when the thought of a particular food may make one feel sick. This psychological factor has however not been fully understood.
  • People with celiac disease react to foods containing gluten in the same way that people with food allergies do.

A food allergy, on the other hand, is a more serious condition. When one is allergic to a particular food or ingredient, their body’s immune system reacts to the presence of that food in the body as it would to an invader. An allergic reaction involving the release of histamine in the body results, leading to breathing problems, tightening of the throat, vomiting, a drop in blood pressure, swelling and even abdominal pain, among others. An allergic reaction can be life-threatening (anaphylaxis) and can be triggered by something as simple as eating microscopic amounts of the food or even inhaling it.

Food intolerance and food allergies usually exhibit similar symptoms, which is why many people confuse the two. If you have a severe food allergy, you should always carry an emergency injectable epinephrine, as well as totally avoid the problem foods at all times.

If you are not sure whether you are allergic or intolerant to particular foods, you should speak to your doctor who will help you clearly determine which of the two categories you belong to. This way, you will always be prepared because if you are truly allergic to a certain food, you should take steps to ensure you do not place yourself in a life-threatening situation.

food fraud

Food Fraud

What is Food Fraud?

With the ever widening global food supply chain, food fraud is becoming an increasing problem that is of major concern to suppliers, manufacturers, retailers, and, of course, consumers.

So what exactly is food fraud and why should the public be worried about it? Food fraud refers to any situation where food is tampered with or misrepresented with an intention of deceiving the consumer, with the main goal being to gain financially from such acts. There are many different types of food fraud, and these have been explored at length in scientific journals by various scholars. However, the two main types of food fraud are:

Sale of food that is unfit and has the potential to harm

This type of food fraud includes sale of beef and poultry with unknown origins, recycling of animal by-products with an intention of getting them back into the food chain, and even knowingly selling food products which have exceeded recommended use by, or safe to eat, dates.

Deliberate misrepresentation of food

Substituting products with cheaper alternatives and making false statements about where the food products originated from are some examples of this type of food fraud.

If animals have been stolen and illegally slaughtered, the sale of such meat constitutes food fraud, the same being true for wild game that has been poached.

The deliberate contamination of food for financial gain is worrisome in that it poses serious health risks to the consumer. With chemicals such as melamine and heparin making their way into the food chain there are serious implications for the long-term health of consumers.

Indeed, it will take a lot of vigilance to ensure that tampering of food products is curtailed. With the increasing fragmentation of global food supply chains, it has become much harder to trace the sources of food, which makes it difficult to detect tampering when it occurs. In the recent horse meat scandal for instance, the meat product travelled across several networks in several European countries, undetected.

Considering that the horse meat scandal is just a tip of the iceberg, it is no surprise therefore that consumers, investigators and regulators are anxious to identify any suspicious products that may be passed off as legitimate food products.

Consumers are entitled to the highest standards of food safety and manufacturers need to be completely transparent in disclosing details of where exactly they source their food, and what safeguards they have in place to prevent food fraud.

optimal cooking temperature

Safe Low-Temperature and Sous Vide Cooking

Safe Low-Temperature and Sous Vide Cookingsous vide cooking

Mention “sous vide” and most people will think of food that has been cooked at a very low temperature.  Sous vide cooking involves sealing ingredients in a vacuum pack bag and cooking in a water bath, a combination oven, or indeed any other cooker that can set and hold a target temperature. Essentially, sous vide cooking is about preparing dishes at an optimal cooking temperature; the temperature being sufficiently high enough to eradicate thermo-tolerant pathogens, whilst still being low enough to maximize flavour. Once cooked, the product is usually served immediately, or it can be seared and / or served or stored in a refrigerator (preferably below 3 degrees Celsius). This makes sous vide a flexible option for the busy caterer, as it enables high quality dishes to be prepared and stored in advance of busy service times.

Sous vide cooking has caught the imagination of chefs from all over the world because it is considered one of the best forms of cooking for enhancing the flavour and texture of food. When food is cooked at low temperatures there is minimal moisture loss. Foods, especially meats, become tender and more succulent when prepared at lower temperatures. This style of cooking also has a reputation for enhancing the visual appearance of food as well as its texture.

However, food cooked at low temperatures has the potential to cause food poisoning because there is a risk that pathogens may be able to survive the cooking process; therefore only those chefs who fully understand the risks associated with sous vide, and have received the appropriate food safety training, should engage in it.

Chefs must ensure they take all necessary steps to mitigate the risk of food poisoning, and that includes only using the freshest of ingredients from a reputable and traceable source. They must also be totally familiar with the equipment, temperatures and times to be used in the cooking process, and to have received the correct and sufficient training.

Personal and environmental hygiene is also extremely important in sous vide cooking; food handlers must make sure that they personally are scrupulously clean, as well as the kitchen in which it the food is to be prepared.

To summarise: Sous vide cooking should only be carried out by professionally trained chefs who fully understand this particular cooking technique and the potential food poisoning hazards  associated with it.

If you would like to have your staff professionally trained in sous vide cooking and the food safety training necessary, please contact us today.

The Benefits of the National Food Hygiene Rating Scheme

The Benefits of the National Food Hygiene Rating Scheme

Have you checked the hygiene rating of your favourite restaurant or food outlet lately? You may be in for an unpleasant surprise when you do!

Most consumers will judge the hygiene standards of a restaurant merely based on appearances; if the premises and staff appear to be clean they will assume the food is safe to eat. However, the National Food Hygiene Rating gives the consumer a much more accurate picture of how well the business meets the required standards by checking-out those areas of the business that the customer can’t see. By knowing the rating of a restaurant in advance of reserving a table you may decide to switch to one that has higher standards.

By maintaining good food hygiene standards, and consequently achieving a high rating, businesses are able to offer the best to their consumers and also remain competitive. The rating scheme is run by local authorities who conduct inspections to ensure that the businesses operating in the food industry have met all the requirements. The information they obtain is then published on the Food Standards Agency website.

The rating is normally applicable to those places where people eat out, e.g. restaurants, cafes, hotels, pubs, as well as institutions like hospitals and schools. You may also find some shops and supermarkets that sell certain types of foodstuffs included within the food hygiene rating scheme.

Before a rating is given, a food safety officer visits the businesses premises to conduct an inspection. The officer will check not just how the food is served to customers, but the entire process from delivery of the food from the wholesaler right through storage, preparation, cooking and disposal of waste. An inspection will also be done to assess the structure and suitability of the building in which food is stored, prepared, and cooked. The officer will pay particular attention to provision of hand washing facilities for staff, fridges and freezers for storing food, as well as lighting and ventilation in food preparation areas. The officer will also want to see evidence of a well-documented food safety management system specific to that particular business.

When the food safety officer’s visit is completed, and they are satisfied the business is in compliance with the law, and standards are being maintained to protect the consumer from deadly foodborne illnesses, they will be given an appropriate rating. The business will then be subject to further regular inspections to ensure standards are not only being maintained, but improved upon.

The food hygiene rating scheme not only allows consumers to keep track of their local food businesses, but is a motivating factor for proprietors and managers to maintain high standards of hygiene. The introduction of this scheme has really helped to enhance the provision of safer food for the nation.

 

food wastage

The Wastage of Food

The scandalous amount of food we waste! 

Back in March, the BBC contacted us for comment on the shocking amount of food that is wasted within the UK. In a world with nearly a billion malnourished people, it’s incredibly hard to comprehend why 18 to 20 million tons of food is wasted in the UK every year. The amount of wasted food is enough to adequately feed each one of these malnourished individuals. But food is continually being wasted by households, food service businesses, manufacturers and retailers.food waste

But who exactly is responsible for discarding the highest quantity of food? According to an estimate given by WRAP, the highest level of food wastage is from consumers who are estimated to discard a horrifying 8.3 million tons of food every year! Retailers on the other hand are responsible for 1.6 million tons of wastage per year and food manufacturers waste around 4.1 million tons! Restaurants and other groups are reported to waste more than 6 million tons of food.

The water used for irrigation to grow surplus food (which will eventually be wasted), is enough to fulfil the domestic needs of 9 billion people! Yes, you read it correctly; 9 billion people! This means that if something isn’t done about food wastage, the UK will be utilising its resources on wastage.

In the UK alone, it’s reported that 20 to 40% of fruit and vegetables are not accepted in shops by major retailers because they do not meet the strict cosmetic standards. Foods such as fish are sometimes thrown back into the North Atlantic and North Sea, simply because they’re not considered the proper size, shape or species.

Food wastage has found its way in schools too. Research shows that 24 to 35% of school lunches are thrown in the bin! Households alone waste around 20% of the food they buy. Some of the food is discarded because it has reached the expiry date before it is consumed.

Retailers are not obligated to report the amount of food which is discarded. There is no law that requires them to report on food wastage, so keeping track of the amount of food that’s eventually discarded can be somewhat of a challenge. The UK Government has recognised that a lot more needs to be done in order to reduce the amount of food that is wasted every year.

Another shocking revelation on food wastage is the fact that the average UK household wastes food worth circa £60 a month, which is nearly the amount an average family spends on groceries per week!