Cysteine

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I'll have a hair pizza please! China's barber shops are about the last place you might expect to find a food ingredient. None the less, this is where the food industry obtains a good proportion of the raw material - human hair - for one of its favorite additives. It is commonly seen on packaged food labels as L - cysteine, or L - cysteine Hydrochloride (HCL). The additive can be produced in two ways: synthetically, from non-organic bases such as petroleum, or directly from human hair. It can be much cheaper to use human hair, which contains up to 8 per cent of the natural amino acid cysteine.

Contents

Uses Of Cysteine

Cysteine is used as a flavoring and a dough enhancer, but by the time it reaches our pizzas and snacks the hair has been thoroughly processed and reduced to its chemical constituents. Still, it is extraordinary to think that the body can be recycled and re-enter the food chain so abruptly. More extraordinary, perhaps, is the journey it makes from the the Far East to our food. Why the food - additives industry should favor hair from this particular region is clear: its homogenous abundance - China has a head count of one billion - and according to the food - ingredient expert Dr John Meyer, because "it's easy to collect nice, clean, tied - up bales of human hair there". The hair is collected, cleaned, processed and then chemically converted into L - cysteine in Far East factories.

"There are very few renewable human resources, but cysteine is one of them," says Dr Meyer, who is responsible for sourcing kosher foods for the Jewish Orthodox Union of America. "You often find it in yeast flavors and you might find it in a savory flavor for almost anything." Muslims are also aware of its presence in food. According to Koranic law, Muslims are forbidden to eat anything containing L - cysteine because it may be derived from human hair. America is ahead in keeping track of all the added ingredients in processed food - kosher food marked with a "U" on the ingredients means it is free of L - cysteine, but elsewhere in the world there is no standard method of identifying foods containing L - cysteine.

"L - cysteine may be present in a number of foods, but it is not always listed on the ingredients," says Richard Ratcliffe, the executive secretary of the British Food Additives and Ingredients Association. "Additives regulations in Europe require manufacturers to list additives and class them as a coloring, for example. But L - cysteine is not regarded as a food additive. It is seen as a processing aid. The food processors decide whether or not to list something like L - cysteine depending on the amounts used. "Nor, of course, do the manufacturers have to state if the L - cysteine used is hair-derived or otherwise."

"The chemical process of converting hair to food additive has been known for a hundred years and couldn't be simpler," says Professor Derek Burke, the former chairman of the Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes.

Health Benefits

For those of us who do feel queasy about hair chemicals in food, not only may the use of cysteine seem cannibalistic, but there are also chilling associations with Auschwitz, where it was produced in a hair - chemicals plant. But if cysteine's provenance appears somewhat stomach-turning, then consider the chemical's benefits. Health - supplement fans rave about it. According to a health-products retailer, cysteine is one of the body's most effective antioxidants and destroyers of the metabolism's toxic waste products, that are said to accelerate ageing. Cysteine is also naturally produced in sulphur-containing foods such as egg yolks, red peppers, garlic, onions, broccoli and Brussels sprouts.

The Government's of America and Europe believe cysteine, human hair-derived or otherwise, as a perfectly safe. In fact, the view is that it is just one of several additives regarded as essential if we are to continue to enjoy safe, cheap food with a long shelf life. And, say its champions, since cysteine is hairy by nature, it can help prevent hair loss and stimulate its growth. 07-Mar-2002 - Nearly one year since the implementation of EU directive 2000/63/EC requiring the elimination of cysteine derived from human hair in foods, many manufacturers in Europe are still unaware of the difference between synthetic cysteine and cysteine of human and animal origin, claims Japanese ingredients company Ajinomoto.

According to the company, although some manufacturers think they are buying cysteine which complies with food regulations, HPLC (High Performance Liquid Chromatography) tests have shown that this is not always the case. Cysteine, used extensively in the food industry as a dough conditioning agent and to produce meat flavours, also has applications in other industries including pharmaceuticals and cosmetics.

At present, more than 80 per cent of cysteine used around the world is produced in China, where it is extracted from human hair and chicken feathers. Ajinomoto stressed in a statement that although some traders in this material claim to supply synthetic cysteine, HPLC tests have shown that it is in fact more likely to be extracted from human hair and therefore does not comply with the EU regulations.

The company claims it can provide the food industry with a cysteine ingredient produced by a chemical process using a new technology developed specifically for the production of pharmaceutical-grade cysteine. The ingredient has Kosher and Halal status and is suitable for vegetarian products. Did you know that L-cysteine, a common dough conditioner, flavor enhancer in human and pet foods, and precursor in some dietary supplements, is most often derived from human hair or duck feathers, and to a lesser extent from pigs' bristles and hooves? We reported the human and animal origins of L-cysteine in The Vegetarian Resource Group's Dictionary of Food Ingredients ten years ago. Then, the most common source was human hair found on the floors of Chinese barbershops. Today, it is derived from Chinese duck feathers approximately 80% of the time (estimation based on values given by several companies that manufacture and sell L-cysteine).

At least two forms of synthetic L-cysteine that were not readily available in 1997 when we first reported on L-cysteine are manufactured today. They are produced by Ajinomoto and Wacker Biochem. Ajinomoto told us that it uses industrial chemicals that undergo a biochemical transformation brought about by non-animal enzymes. Previously selling both the "natural," (i.e., animal- or human- derived L-cysteine), and synthetic forms, Ajinomoto completely switched in 2000 to selling just the synthetic form of L-cysteine. Wacker Biochem informed us that they produce L-cysteine through a microbial fermentation process developed in 2001 using corn sugar as the growth medium. Since both forms are expensive, they are not commonly used. According to both companies, the synthetic forms of L-cysteine are certified kosher and halal. L-cysteine derived from human hair or duck feathers may or may not be certified kosher and/or halal.

The use of synthetic L-cysteine could increase over time. Doug Hackett of Premium Ingredients, a major supplier of L-cysteine derived from human hair or duck feathers, told us that he's recently had to turn away several potential customers looking for synthetic L-cysteine because Premium sells only the non-synthetic variety. Requests from customers concerned about human- or animal-derived ingredients in their foods could also accelerate the use of synthetic L-cysteine in foods over feather- or human hair-derived L-cysteine.

L-cysteine is considered a substance that is generally recognized as safe by the Food and Drug Administration. It must be labeled by its "common and usual name," (i.e., "L-cysteine"), on food packages, even if present in very small amounts, as long as it has a functional effect in foods. In other cases, such as when it is used to make flavors that are in foods, it does not have to be labeled. When L-cysteine does have to be labeled, its source does not have to be specified according to the FDA.

While researching L-cysteine, The VRG asked several fast food chains and a major vegetarian food company about the sources of L-cysteine in their products. McDonald's told us that L-cysteine derived from duck feathers is in their Honey Wheat Roll, the Deluxe Warm Cinnamon Roll, and the Baked Apple Pie. The L-cysteine in several items offered at Dunkin' Donuts is also derived from duck feathers. Burger King told us in June 2007 that it "could not guarantee" the source of L-cysteine in its products.

On the other hand, Subway recently announced in March 2007 that it has removed the L-cysteine from its otherwise animal product-free Carb Conscious Wrap. When asked about the source of L-cysteine in several of its products, Domino's Pizza told us that L-cysteine is "microbially derived" in its Hand-Tossed Crust and informed us that the L-cysteine in Domino's Breadsticks, Cheesy Bread, and Cinna Stix is "vegetable-derived."

The public relations firm for Morningstar Farms told us that the L-cysteine in their Veggie Bites Country Scramble, Veggie Bites Spinach Artichoke, and Veggie Bites Eggs Florentine was a "microbial fermentation product."

References

  • Food for thought By David Stipp, July 21, 2003 in Fortune at CNN Money
  • Like mountains hanging by a hair: Kosher Issues in L-Cysteine, Chagiga I:8, Rabbi Zushe Yosef Blech

Current News and Research

  • Scientists in Finland believe that cysteine-containing chewing gum could become a new way of preventing upper digestive tract cancers.