Feb 09, 2015

    Gold in food not worth its weight in health

    IS IT necessary to add powdered gold to liquors? Should powdered gold at all be used as a food additive? And won't the consumption of gold in any form harm human health?

    Such questions are still haunting the public in China despite an official agency issuing a statement to clarify a National Health and Family Planning Commission's draft seeking people's feedback by Feb 20 on the use of powdered gold as food additive.

    The draft published on the commission's website says that powdered gold will be used only in distilled spirit, or Chinese liquor, with the maximum amount being 0.02g per kg of liquid. It, however, does not say why gold needs to be used as an additive in liquors or the benefits it will bring, forcing some people to suspect that liquor companies might have "pressured" the health authorities into making the decision in order to maximise their profits.

    Some medical experts and liquor industry insiders, too, are wondering why the government wants to promote the consumption of a heavy metal like gold. "I don't understand why it is necessary to add powdered gold to Chinese liquor," Ma Yong, deputy director of the China National Food Industry Association White Spirit Committee, was quoted as having told Beijing Times. "We also need to see the applicant's rationale behind the request for the approval (of powdered gold as food additive)."

    At a news briefing on Wednesday, Chen Junshi, general advisor to the China National Centre for Food Safety Risk Assessment and an academician with the Chinese Academy of Engineering, said that it is safe to use gold as a food additive, citing this as a long international practice. "Gold, if consumed, can neither be absorbed by nor can it accumulate in the human body...it can be easily discharged, though. The addition of powdered gold to distilled spirit will not be hazardous to health."

    But Mr Chen admitted that adding gold to liquor or any food item will do no good to human health. "There are more than 400 food additives that should not be used...(for they are) not needed by the human body...They are added only to offer consumers more choices. If consumers dislike them, they would naturally have no market," he added.

    Such explanations seem reasonable. But they have failed to convince the public. If something cannot do any good to health, why should it be used as a food additive? The Chinese people have always believed that the fewer additives, especially the unnecessary ones, their foods contain, the safer they will be. This belief has deepened at a time when people have become increasingly wary of food safety scares.

    This should prompt the National Health and Family Planning Commission, as the country's top health watchdog, to exercise prudence when it comes to approving the use of new food additives.

    Also, some people's claim that powdered gold will not harm human health is open to debate. Fan Zhihong, an associate professor of nutrition and food safety at China Agricultural University, said that more than 20 metals have been confirmed as being essential to human body, but they surely do not include gold.

    Talking with a media outlet, Cai Xiaozhen, a nutritionist at a hospital in Jiangsu province, said a large intake of powdered gold is surely detrimental to human health.

    The European Union has approved the use of gold foil, but only as decorations and external coatings for chocolates and confectionery. In Australia and New Zealand, too, it is used as inedible ornamentation.

    Given that the Ministry of Public Health, the predecessor of the National Health and Family Planning Commission, explicitly said in 2011 that powdered gold (or gold foil) is neither a new material for liquors nor can it be used as a food additive in response to an application, the health commission owes the public a convincing explanation for its sudden U-turn.