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Sulfite Labels on Food Products

May 26, 1988|JOAN DRAKE | Times Staff Writer

Question: Please explain why there's now a notification of sulfites on countless foods and wines.

Answer: After conducting a study prompted by reports of 13 deaths and at least 500 allergic reactions attributed to sulfites, the Food and Drug Adminstration banned the use of these preservatives on fresh fruits and vegetables. Another government-imposed restriction requires presence of the chemical in processed foods and beverages to be disclosed on the labels.

In the past, these colorless, odorless preservatives had been used to keep foods such as lettuce on salad bars looking fresh. In wines, sulfites--which can form naturally during fermentation besides being added--preserve color and flavor.

According to the FDA, more than 1 million Americans, mostly asthmatics, are sensitive to sulfites. Reactions can range from hives, nausea and diarrhea to shortness of breath and shock. The labeling is intended to protect these consumers.

Q: I keep seeing recipes from anywhere and everywhere listing saffron. My stores charge $7.95 for three saffron threads. Is this the spice these recipes refer to?

A: Yes, undoubtedly the recipes are referring to saffron, the world's most expensive spice. Fortunately, a pinch will color and flavor a pound of rice, according to Sarah Garland, author of "The Complete Book of Herbs & Spices" (Viking Press: 1979).

Saffron comes from the three bright orange stigmas of a flower native to India. In "Herbs, Spices and Flavorings" (Overlook Press: 1982), author Tom Stobard reports that today these flowers are grown "in most of the Mediterranean countries through the Levant and Persia to Kashmir and also in China." Since the stigmas must be picked by hand, and it takes 70,000 to 80,000 to yield one pound, the spice is understandably very expensive.

"Good saffron is a fresh, bright orange color and smells strongly sweet and pungent--when old it becomes musty," Garland writes. Add the dried threads to a little warm water, milk or cooking liquid and leave for a few minutes to color, scent and flavor the liquid, then add the liquid, either with the threads or strained, to the dish. Alternatively leave the threads in a low oven for a few minutes to crisp, then crumble into the food.

"When too much saffron is used a bitter taste overpowers the subtle flavor. Saffron is the traditional flavoring of many European dishes such as French bouillabaisse, Spanish paella, Milanese risotto and Cornish saffron cake, and is used extensively in Middle Eastern cookery.

"Safflower, marigold petals and ground turmeric are other yellow food colorings that have been used to adulterate saffron or as substitutes, but they will completely change the character of the dish," Garland adds.

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