Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Dr. Velcorin, Or: How I learned to Stop Worrying and Love The Flabby Fruit Bomb

One of my biggest concerns with flabby, high pH, low acid wines has been their potential for microbial instability. But fear no more, for there's Velcorin! It's an additive consisting of dimethyl dicarbonate common not only in wine processing but also food processing that kills bacteria and yeast quite literally from the inside. That eliminates one obvious path for spoilage, especially in high pH wines where sulfites are ineffective except in massive doses.

Sounds great, right? Not so fast, my friend. This stuff is toxic to handle--after all, it penetrates cell membranes and inhibits cells from functioning. It apparently breaks down (hydrolyzes) to methanol and carbon dioxide quite rapidly, but methanol is not something we can consume safely in any measurable quantity. The good news is the requisite dosing is quite small, so we really don't need to worry about an appreciable level of methanol in our wine or fruit juice. But that does raise the question, is this a risk we need to be taking? A mistake in handling or dosing does indeed poses a risk for humans.

Like all of these concerns involving wine adjustments, this is a serious gray area. Do we trust Fred Franzia and his Bronco Wine Co. to use this tool in a safe manner? Do we trust conglomerates like Diageo, Foster's and Constellation to act responsibly? At the very least, Velcorin should be listed as an additive. But since it is a "secondary food additive" the FDA does not require it to be documented in any way. To be quite blunt, we should have access to the additives in our food in drink. If Velcorin or Mega-Purple was added to the wine, then list it. Of course, it will take FDA regulations and enforcement for this to happen. I wouldn't be holding my breath on this one. I'm in no way opposed to the use of sound chemistry as a tool, but disclosure is important to keep consumers informed.

For more on Velcorin, check out an older post over on Pinot Blogger. The comments are worth a read as well. W. Blake Gray's more recent post on Mega-Purple is also an interesting read.


Jeff said...

Nice Dr. Strangelove reference. I've never even heard of this's probably about as toxic as alcohol, but I'd like to know if there's weird stuff in the wine I'm drinking. It's regrettable that we live in a "caveat emptor" type of society where it pertains to food. You probably know, but you can use all sorts of stuff in food manufacturing and not declare it if it's used as a "processing aid." Of course, that crap ends up in whatever you're consuming in some fashion, and you never know. And you wonder why people like Michael Pollan talk about there basically being a gigantic evolutionary experiment being played out on the human race at this moment where it pertains to food. We've changed our eating habits to accommodate industrial production methods, and now we're all guinea pigs.

CabFrancoPhile said...

I've thought the same thing about processed food--it's going to drive human evolution and those that are adapted will pass on their genetic info. The disturbing thing is food is changing so rapidly that not even a generation goes by before it's radically different. I wonder if evolutionary forces can adapt to such a short time scale impulse.

I'm not really concerned with Velcorin's safety. Methanol in trace quantities won't hurt us, and yeast fermenting probably produce more of it than any Velcorin addition anyway. The big thing that annoys me is that undoubtedly there are wineries are probably marketing wines as unfined and unfiltered products of nature while using Velcorin to sterilize them. I'd love to see the curtain pulled back on the hypocritical marketing BS.

Jeff said...

I wonder if the food industry will have to revert back to its former pre-1950's self in some sense. In one way, the cat is out of the bag, but on the flip side, more people are becoming aware of what's happening. The laissez-faire attitude about food from Joe Public is a problem though. Living in a big city is like living in a fishbowl. Food for a lot of Americans is Mc Donald's or what you get at Wal-Mart, with nary a second thought about what it is other than it's cheap and it tastes good enough. Will people ever care enough to eat better? Will more people start cooking?

The other real problem in many ways is government intervention. Since the 1970's, the US has gone after a mandate of cheap food, and has accomplished this by farm policies that subsidize crap. We've created entire huge companies out of the need to deal with our glut of corn and soy. It's not a bad goal to have cheap food, but it's gone haywire in a big way. Politicians are lobbied by big food companies to support their legislation, as well as companies like Monsanto that make GM seed. There's a lot of stuff going on. Is it detrimental? I think that it's a gray area in some cases, but probably fairly bad in others. Take GM seed--on the one hand, it makes stuff grow more efficiently, which is important for the developing world in particular. On the other hand, it gets into the native population and it's patented so the natural rhythm of farming is being you can't store seed.

I so badly want to just pack it all up and go off the grid with my food. Buy a farm, have some goats, chickens, and grow some vegetables...