Sorbic acid is the hot keyword of the day, with a back and forth going between Singapore Food Agency (SFA) and Tiong Bahru Tian Bo Shui Kueh (Jian bo). You can read more about the Sorbic acid kueh fiasco timeline which Mothership has detailed quite succinctly, so I’m not going into details here.
I love kueh, it’s one of my favourite snacks. This made me wonder: is sorbic acid safe? Should I be concerned about consuming this substance through my favourite food? Let’s dive into the nitty gritty details of what exactly Sorbic acid is, why it’s used in food products, and whether you should be worried about consuming it on a daily basis.
What is Sorbic acid?
Sorbic acid was first isolated from the young berries of the rowan plant (Sorbus aucuparia), hence its name.
Sorbic acid is a food preservative that is commonly used in the beverages and food industry. It can be found naturally in some berries but is also synthesised commercially to be used as a preservative and comes in a powder form.
Why was there Sorbic acid in kueh?
In food manufacturing, Sorbic acid is most likely a synthetic compound added to preserve foods as it is also safer than nitrate preservatives. Whether synthetic is good or not remains up to an individual’s discretion.
Sorbic acid does not affect the taste or appearance of foods but it does help to prevent spoilage during storage before consumption. It inhibits yeast and mold growth and is probably one of the most commonly found preservative.
For example, when Sorbic acid is added to a kueh, there will not be any mold growth for around 30 days! Normally kuehs (without preservative) would begin to mold in just a few days.
This means that if you eat something with Sorbic acid added to it then you’re less likely to get sick from eating foods that have been stored for longer periods of time without being refrigerated properly.
Is Sorbic acid safe?
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has placed sorbic acid on its list of approved food additives under GRAS (Generally Regarded As Safe).
The term “generally regarded as safe” does not mean that no one has ever had an adverse reaction to a product containing it, but rather indicates that the majority of people have not reported any side effects or allergic reactions to products containing this ingredient.
From what I can tell, FDA regulates the limited use of Sorbic acid between 0.1% – 0.3% of various foods by weight.
SFA also permits sorbic acid as a food additive in limited quantities generally, and in the case of our beloved kueh, Sorbic acid is approved in only the kueh filling specifically up to a maximum amount of 1,000ppm.
Why only the filling and not the entire kueh including the skin? This is something only SFA can answer as there’s no publicly available information I could find regarding this.
Part of the issue is food preservatives prevent the growth of all bacteria not just the bad bacteria. That means Sorbic acid can inhibit the growth of good bacteria in our guts as well, so I wouldn’t recommend having too much of this anyway.
So Sorbic acid can eat or not?
Can eat, but don’t eat too much. I’m not a food scientist so please do your own research as well.
In conclusion, Sorbic acid is a food preservative that is commonly used and there’s a good chance it’s synthetically added to many products you currently eat. Both SFA and FDA have listed it as an additive safe for consumption, although limited quantities of the substance are allowed.
If you were confused why some kueh manufacturers violated the permissible quantities, so was I.
SFA’s language and limitation usage communicated about Sorbic acid was ambiguous at best, which they have also admitted to have provided ‘incorrect information’ to the affected kueh manufacturer.
An apology from a Singapore Government agency to the public is akin to spotting a unicorn though, and SFA merely: “regret[s] the miscommunication to [Jian Bo] that had given them the wrong impression”. I can only hope any damage done can be contained.
To be safe, Jian bo has completely removed the use of Sorbic acid in all its affected kuehs (based on their latest lab report), so you can expect that your kuehs might be going bad a lot faster now.
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