When we open the discussion about food additives and flavors that we can find in our food, we already know that most of them are “natural” just by the label. Things like carrageenan or L-Cysteine on the other hand are natural and at first look to be ok on our table. The question now is: ALL natural ingredients are good to be present in our meal? Does anyone know the accepted quantities for the safe limit? Does anyone know what E920 is and where it comes from?
Most of this substances are natural extracts from animal and plants and it’s something that we can easily choose/research. The main problem is when we hit this situation about L-Cysteine, the E920 we mentioned earlier, one thing that you may found in commercial bread.
At its most basic form, bread is nourishing, sustaining and gives us energy. Bread is the basis of so many meals, the bricks that hold sandwich ingredients, spreads and veggies together. Eating bread is as basic to us as drinking water. Unfortunately, the bread you’re buying contains a much darker story.
An important food additive used in commercial bread production is often made from human hair. The amino acid called L-cysteine is often made from grain, but cheaper production methods include duck feathers and human hair gleaned from hairdressing salons.
A hairy situation
If you read the ingredients label on a loaf of bread, you will usually find an ingredient listed there as L-cysteine. This is a non-essential amino acid added to many baked goods as a dough conditioner in order to speed industrial processing. It’s usually not added directly to flour intended for home use, but you’ll find it throughout commercial breads such as pizza dough, bread rolls and pastries.
This conditioner is a naturally occuring sulphur containing amino acid, derived from cystine, that the body needs to produce Glutathione, one of the body’s major antioxidants. Natural sources of cysteine include eggs, meat, dairy products and some cereals although it is commercially produced from hair, both animal and human and feathers.
In compound form (E920 and E921) it is used in flour and bakery products (except wholemeal) where it is used as an improving agent and in chicken stock cubes where it is used as a flavour.
So, according to this, L-cysteine is best described as a dough conditioner. It makes the dough more manageable and is common used in pizza dough and bagels. It may be present in other types of bread products too, like pizza or pastry. The major commercial sources of L-cysteine today are Chinese and Indian market and usually it is said to be obtained from avian feathers or hog hair.
There are a lot of plants that use mostly avian feathers, but also human hair. This is a cheap process and very hard to supervize as long as there is a demand and there is a full industry about this. There are a lot of industrial plants in China that extract L-cysteine, it’s a cheap process and many Chinese family live from this business. They just collect the human hair from barber shops and sell to this plants. This is the case of Wang Wey a chinese guy that gets hair from the floor directly to the factories that use it to produce the amino-acid.
Wang sets off around 8am every day, unless it’s raining of course. There is no much fun picking up wet hair. Some of the bigger collectors have cars or vans, but Wang rides his motorcycle on his rounds of Shanghai’s salons, looking to buy hair swept off the floor for about 6 kuai per kilo. On a good day he’ll return home with 100 kg, on a bad one he’ll get half that. His biggest hauls are just before Spring Festival, since everyone gets their hair cut before the new year.
In the afternoon he returns home and he and his wife set about fishing all the paper, q-tips, cigarette butts and trash out of the tangles. They also separate long hairs from short. Wang says he can work through about 50 kg of hair per hour. This is his main source to get about RMB7,000 per month.
Competition isn’t too bad, Wang says. The industry isn’t very well known.
While some L-cysteine is directly synthesized in laboratories, most of it is extracted from a cheap and abundant natural protein source: human hair from China that sometimes is told to be from hog hair or feathers. This may be the problem as long as is difficult to discover it in bread or tell its origins. As a process the hair is dissolved in acid and L-cysteine is isolated through a chemical process, then packaged and shipped off to commercial bread producers. Although there is no technical difference between L-cysteine derived from feathers versus that derived from human hair, industry prefer the human hair-derived L-cysteine because is considered better and cheaper. The Chinese say they sell us duck feather L-cysteine but instead they lie and sell us the much cheaper to produce human L-cysteine.
So, practically there is human hair in your bread. And in that pizza you ate yesterday.
Hair, however, is not the only commercial source of l-cysteine. Poultry feathers also contain substantial amounts of l-cysteine, and are often processed in the same manner as hair for this purpose. While the thought of eating dissolved hair might make some people uneasy, most Western consumers ultimately have no principled objections doing so. For Jews and Muslims, however, hair-derived L-cysteine poses significant problems.
Muslims are forbidden from eating anything derived from a human body, and many rabbis forbid hair consumption for similar reasons. Even rabbis who permit the consumption of hair would forbid it if it came from corpses – and since much L-cysteine comes from China, where sourcing and manufacturing practices are notoriously questionable, this is a real concern. In one case, a rabbi forbade the consumption of L-cysteine because the hair had been harvested during a ritual at a temple in India.
Is L-Cysteine safe to eat?
According to the Code of Federal Regulations under paragraph 18, L-cysteine is listed on labels, usually in a parenthetical expression after the term “dough conditioner.” However, it need not be listed if L-cysteine is an ingredient used to make other ingredients which are in a final product. For example, L-cysteine used as a “reaction flavor”. Another example is in a pizza kit in which there are individual packets of dough, sauce, and seasonings in a larger box. L-cysteine may be in the dough, but not labeled as an ingredient in the kit.
FDA considers it is safe when used at suggested levels for dough conditioning. Human or animal sources may be undesirable to some people. Synthetic and microbial versions of L-cysteine exist and are used in products with an approximately 10% total market share, but at present are more costly than hair- or feather-derived L-cysteine.
Homemade bread – more effort, but healthier
Up until the 1950s, bread had been made using sourdough leavening as the main technique, which would take up to a day to produce. This amount of time was necessary for the proper conditioning of the dough. With the advent of bakery manufacturing facilities and mass-production of square (condensed) loaves of bread, the production time for bread had to be accelerated. It was discovered that the addition of certain chemicals and enzymes to the bread could shorten the process to two hours instead of the usual 12 to 24 hours.
You select all the ingredients that go into your homemade bread. You can choose the highest quality flours – or grind your own – eggs and dairy. You also control the sugar content and do not have to worry about the addition of high fructose corn syrup or dextrose, which offer empty calories and that are not so good for you.
Unless you add it yourself with margarine or vegetable shortening, homemade bread does not contain trans fats; you can use heart-healthy unsaturated fats such as olive oil instead. Commercially prepared breads often contain preservatives and artificial ingredients to extend their shelf life and boost flavor. More, looks like a dough conditioner made from human hair mostly, sometimes isn’t even put on labels. Even the producer tell that the L-cysteine is made from other sources, there is actually no control on the origin of this substance.Homemade bread is cheaper, healthier and has much more nutritious value Click To Tweet
Cheaper doesn’t have to mean less nutritious: in this case it actually means that there’s more nutrition per bite! You see, the bread in your local store isn’t quite the same as the stuff you can make in your own kitchen. They start with wheat berries, just like you do, but once the flour is milled things change up a bit. The reason why store bread and store flour can last for a longer period of time than the food you make at home isn’t just preservatives: they also remove the greater portion of the wheat berry itself! To see what that can mean let’s look at a diagram of a wheat berry and see what commercial mills typically remove.
As for the L-cysteine used for commercial bread there is a regulation on Food Standards Agency abou the European bread that specifies that only L-cysteine produced from duck and chicken feathers can be used. That means that as long as you are in holiday in Europe you can enjoy any bread or pizza as for sure they don’t have any human hair in it.
Please let us know what do you think about the policy regarding L-cysteine and what should be the FDA position about labeling these kind of substances.