Use of ammonia in Oreo cookies production sparks debate

Use of ammonia in Oreo cookies production sparks debate
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Oreo cookies, for many years the most sold biscuit in the world, owes its black colour to the addition of ammonia during the production process. Though not unusual or illegal, people have started to question whether this is harmful.

In the Netherlands, debate became heated about the cocoa factory Olam in the village of Koog aan de Zaan with local media reporting that the company has been using large quantities of ammonia (NH3) for years, adding it to ground cocoa beans to give the powder its typical black colour. That cocoa powder is then bought by biscuit manufacturer Mondelez to make Oreos.

The company has long been under fire in the area for its ammonia emissions. In the past, it claimed that the ammonia was naturally released (which is partly true). Yet the factory director Eric Nederhand confirmed that ammonia is effectively added to the production process.

Ammonia hypocrisy

According to Noordhollands Dagblad newspaper, the Dutch government would have been aware of the production process and must have concealed information about hundreds of tonnes of ammonia at the request of the company. This has stirred the debate surrounding nitrogen: why is a farmer penalised for excessive use of nitrogen or ammonia while big industry gets a pass from the government?

Ammonia (or NH3) is a volatile, colourless gas that has a very sharp odour, explained toxicologist Jan Tytgat (KU Leuven). "It's a toxic substance that we have to pay attention to. The gas is highly stimulating and those who breathe it in can develop blisters. Among other things, the mucous membranes and the epithelial cells of our lungs and oesophagus can be affected.”

In the food industry, ammonia is one of the alkaline reagents used to process cocoa and is a widely known and accepted additive. "This is far from earth-shattering,” said Bruno De Meulenaer, professor of food safety at Ghent University. “Ammonia is used, to darken cocoa, to remove the bitterness or to make it more soluble, for example for chocolate milk.”

More an environmental concern

Tytgat argues that though there is little concern about ammonia poisoning the end product, ammonia emissions during the production process could be detrimental to the surrounding environment.

Mondelez emphasises in a press release that "Oreo cookies on the market are safe to eat and do not pose any risk to food safety." De Meulenaer concurs: “The ammonia is lost during the baking process."

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The Food Agency FASFC emphasised that the derived product, ammonium carbonate (or E503) must also be stated on the packaging (which it is the case of Oreos). “This is an authorised food additive, mainly used for its fermenting effect,” the agency’s Hélène Bonte told De Standaard.

There is no European limit on the daily intake of the additive.

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