In the past 30 years, many Americans have cast a critical eye on processed foods. Ingredient lists can look frighteningly long. Questions about the long term safety of the ingredients in processed foods and how they affect our health have lead many people to turn away from packaged foods.
Admittedly, the production of packaged foods is somewhat complex. But an understanding of chemistry can shed some light on the convenience foods on supermarket shelves. And though thinking about chemistry in relation to food may not sound very appetizing, the truth is, food preparation is often a matter of chemistry—even in the foods we consider fresh and wholesome, like dairy.
A great example of a chemical used in food production is disodium phosphate. There are three main sodium phosphates used in food production: monosodium phosphate (NaH2PO4), disodium phosphate (Na2HPO4), and trisodium phosphate (Na3PO4). Though each form is useful in food processing, here we will focus on how disodium phosphate works in food production.
What Is Disodium Phosphate?
Disodium phosphate is made with a simple chemical reaction between phosphoric acid (H3PO4) and sodium hydroxide. Phosphoric acid is a mineral acid. It neutralizes with sodium hydroxide, which acts as an alkaline substance during the reaction. Sodium atoms replace two of the three hydrogen atoms in the phosphoric acid and disodium phosphate is formed.
When used according to the FDA’s good manufacturing practices, disodium phosphate is generally recognized as safe. Though we often think of processed food as a byproduct of the mid-20th century, sodium phosphates have been used in food production for over a century. Phosphates were used in cheese production as early as 1895. Likewise, sodium phosphates have historically been used in processed cheese, evaporated milk, and other fluid milk products.
pH Control In Packaged Foods
Among the most common uses of disodium phosphate is as a neutralizing agent. It acts as a buffering solution that helps control pH.
Buffering solutions, a type of water-soluble solution known as aqueous solutions, are created by mixing a weak acid and its conjugate base. When a harsh acid or base is added to the solution, the pH of the solution as a whole is minimally affected.
Many consumable liquids require diligent monitoring of pH to keep them in the right state. For instance, creamy milk can quickly become tangy cottage cheese by reducing the pH of the milk by adding an acid.
Keeping the pH stable also contributes to food safety. Foods with a pH of 4.6 or lower do not provide a hospitable environment for bacteria like Clostridium botulinum to grow.
Stabilizing Our Dairy
Most people love cheese but making it would be difficult without disodium phosphate. It acts as an emulsifier that keeps fat and water from separating during the cheese-making process. This helps us get the richest and creamiest cheese possible. In evaporated milk, it helps keep the butterfat from separating in the can and prevents an unpleasant gel from forming.
And if you are a fan of whipped cream, you can thank disodium phosphate for the pleasure of picking it up at your local grocery store. Disodium phosphate is used as a processing agent in heavy whipping cream where it binds to the natural minerals in milk. It prevents the heavy cream from becoming unmanageable and coating the equipment during processing.
Controlling Texture & Food Preservation
Salt was the first preservative used to keep meat, seafood, pork, and poultry safe for consumption. Over time, food manufacturers have incorporated disodium phosphate as a means of food preservation. But the benefit of using disodium phosphate on meats does not stop at preservation. It can improve the meat’s tenderness and make it appear juicier.
Americans are lucky enough to live in a world where rich foods are just a shopping trip away. And we have come to rely on these convenience foods. The world of chemistry allows food manufacturers to create safe, enjoyable products that make our lives easier. Disodium phosphate is just one of the sodium phosphates used in the making of these packaged foods. But there are numerous other sodium phosphates used in and out of the food manufacturing industry.
Noah Chemicals is a leading supplier of sodium phosphates for research, manufacturing, and industrial processing purposes. Our long standing customers appreciate how deeply our commitment to quality is ingrained in our process.
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