Whiter than white? EU rejecting ‘unbleached’ yellow konjac

By Annie-Rose Harrison-Dunn reporting from Java, Indonesia

- Last updated on GMT

Konjac is often bleached using sulphur dioxide, a legal additive that has none the less been linked to lung damage when inhaled. Photo credits AR Harrison-Dunn
Konjac is often bleached using sulphur dioxide, a legal additive that has none the less been linked to lung damage when inhaled. Photo credits AR Harrison-Dunn

Related tags: Nutrition

Europe needs to be educated on ‘unbleached’ yellow konjac, says Indonesian supplier with sulphur safety concerns.

Johanes Sukatio, president director of Java-based Algalindo, said so far his konjac had been rejected by EU buyers because of a fundamental misunderstanding about the real colour of the weight loss ingredient.

Speaking with us at a buyer mission to Indonesia for the firm’s main seller, carrageenan, he said each sample request played out the same: He would send samples and the potential buyer would ask why his yellow powder was not white.

Most konjac powder or gums were white, but Sukatio said this was because sulphur was used to ‘bleach’ the ingredient derived from the root of the konjac plant. He said he preferred not to do this because of health concerns.

According to a 2010 report from the UK’s Health Protection Agency​, breathing in sulphur dioxide can cause irritation of the nose and throat and higher concentrations can cause nausea, vomiting, stomach pain and corrosive damage to the airways and lungs. Skin contact can cause stinging pain, redness of the skin and blisters. Eye contact can cause watering eyes and in severe cases blindness.

However the report said it was not known whether sulphur dioxide could cause cancer due to a lack of data.

Sulphur dioxide can be used as a food preservative or bleaching agent.

Last year the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) called for data​on a variety of food additives permitted for use in the EU, including sulphur dioxide (E221).

The deadline for this was last November, with the opinions expected this year.

The re-evaluation of sulphur dioxide will be discussed today at the plenary meeting of EFSA’s Food Additives and Nutrient Sources Added to Food (ANS) panel. According to its register of questions, a deadline of 31st​ December this year has been set for the opinion, which was requested by the Commission’s DG SANTE.

Attending the buyer’s trip, Stefanie van Pée, director of sales and procurement for the raw materials supplier Roeper, said this colour differentiation was not something the firm had been aware of and was not a topic of discussion for the industry more broadly as far as she knew.

The German firm was looking into whether the yellow ingredient could be an option and if processing without sulphur impacted functionality.

This was likely to be an option for dietary products and drinks where colour could be masked, she said, but less likely at this stage for pharmaceuticals or over-the-counter nutraceuticals unless it had the added value of an organic certificate.

konjac shredded AR Harrison-Dunn
'Shredded' konjac before it is milled

The firm is waiting for samples to assess the product quality and possible use in different applications.

Sukatio speculated that the rejection was because for certain products like pills consumers expected a clean white colour.

The ingredient could be used as a gelling agent in combination with hydrocolloids like carrageenan. For the weight loss sector though the dietary fibre was used for its glucomannan content.

Under certain conditions glucomannan can carry two EFSA-approved health claims stating the nutrient “in the context of an energy restricted diet contributes to weight loss​”​ and contributes to the maintenance of normal blood cholesterol levels”.

The claims have induced movement in the weight loss sector, with players like Naturex announcing new prototype products with the ingredient like slimming noodles and a cake​earlier this year. 

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2 comments

"Consumers expect"

Posted by Tania,

This is ridiculous. If you asked a consumer would they prefer to have a product that was yellow or one washed with sulphur dioxide so it was white, what do you think they would say?
Use some common sense - if it's only used because of the colour then it's better to educate the consumer, not introduce unneeded chemicals because of an assumption of what 'consumers expect'

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Yellow and red konjac are not so new

Posted by Jean-Marc PARRY,

Konjac was identified mostly in Europe as an additive (since 1998) and has more recently been accepted as an ingredient (therefore not a novel food so consumption in EU was allegedly significant for several decades). EU accepted the use of health claims related to konjac foods and suplements in 2010 (EFSA panel) and 2012 (Register of Health claims). This has had fundamental effects on the market. First konjac was as an additive restricted to the species Amorphophallus konjac Koch a temperate species that originated almost exclusively from China or Japan. This flour is quite light colored due to the use of sulfites in the preparation but also to a supply chain and process limiting polyphenol coloration amongst other things that can impact on the colour of flour. This powder might even be bleached with other bleaching agents (Chloride is listed as a limited component in E425ii definition) but konjac chips are traditionally prevented from browning by burning sulfur and blowing the fumes into the drying oven. Now that the ingredient is no longer restricted to the konjac species (and because there is more request and pressure on the price)other species' powder (well known to aroid collectors and edible tuber specialists)have found their way onto European tables either used in processed foods or as flour (sometimes mixed into “white” konjac flour). As tropical species of konjac are often sun dried or dried in less mechanized processes, the so called “Red konjac” and “Yellow konjac” will appear on the market as coloured flours probably less because of fear of using sulfites than because of their natural intrinsinc components and because the harvesting in tropical countries (where it is still quite a new crop) is more complicated under very different humidity and temperature scales.
Most konjac products (flour and processed foods) are tested systematically for sulfites (on the major allergen list). The key issue is not whether the bleaching is necessary (it also has a positive impact on the bacteria levels) or just for improving the aspect but how growing new sources of konjac are going to meet customer acceptance within a regulatory system that is still lacking some leveling out between FCC, EU and other countries’ rules on food additives and health claims on foods. How should healthy exotic vegetables be dealt with when they are considered at the same time Food Chemicals and active botanicals ?

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