By: Susanne Rust
The Australian government has given the nod to winemakers to begin using a chemical contained in laxatives.
While the chemical, sodium carboxymethyl cellulose, has long been prized by the medical world for its anti-bulking and laxative properties, food scientists have discovered that, in small doses, it can be used to stabilize and thicken beverages and foods.
In the case of wine, the chemical prevents crystallization and cloudiness in white and sparkling varieties.
"I don't think the levels that are approved for use in wine in the EU and Australia will give that laxative effect," said Wendell Lee, general counsel for the Wine Institute, the trade group for California's wine industry.
The Winemakers' Federation of Australia appealed to its government to approve the chemical, arguing that the additive would save energy and money. That's because traditional methods for preventing crystallization - cooling and filtration - can be highly energy intensive.
The chemical has not been approved for use in wine produced in the United States. However, an international agreement among several nations - including Australia; the European Union, where it is approved; and the U.S. - means that it is legal in imported wines.
But because there are no labeling requirements for food additives in wine, U.S. drinkers will remain in the dark as to its presence.
"There's nothing you can do," said Roger Boulton, professor of viticulture and enology at UC Davis. "There's no way of knowing. If it's imported and it's an approved additive elsewhere, the consumer won't know."
According to both the EU and Australian government, the chemical does not alter the taste or consistency of wine, and it poses no harm to human health.
The U.S. Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, which oversees labeling and food additives in wine, has approved more than 50 wine additives, including soy flour, which helps with fermentation; potassium metabisulfite, which is used to sterilize and preserve wine; and copper sulfate, to remove hydrogen sulfide.
Lee, the Wine Institute's general counsel, said that while labeling information such as allergen content or carbohydrates might be helpful to consumers, "disclosing other substances that don't have a health impact may not be worthwhile."
"Do consumers need to be told about the substances that go into wine production?" Lee asked. "I'm not sure there's a lot of useful information in that."
In its ruling, the Australian government wrote that "use of the additive to stabilise wine and sparkling wine is technologically justified and would be expected to provide benefits to wine producers and consumers as an alternative to current treatments."
As of Nov. 17, winemakers in Australia are allowed to add the chemical to their products.