Coal Bin by Harold Hough

It’s frequently said that if it isn’t grown, it is mined. That’s true. And, in some cases, while it can be grown, it’s cheaper and easier to produce the same product from mined chemicals. We saw that in the production of the malaria drug, quinine, which is grown in small qualities, but produced from coal based chemicals in order to meet world demand in WW II.

Although not considered medicines, food preservatives are just as important to maintaining the population’s health. Not only do they keep foods fresh and free of dangerous toxins, they give people more variety and access to critical nutrients that may otherwise not be found in their diet. Coal based chemicals are found at the heart of the modern food preservative industry. Even older methods like salting and smoking are frequently used only for flavoring since they contain carcinogens, while the real perseveration is accomplished by coal based chemicals.

Ironically, in the search for organic foods that don’t contain carcinogenic chemical preservatives, the food industry has had to rely even more on coal based chemicals. Even chemicals that can be produced from “natural” substances are synthesized from coal based chemicals in order to keep them inexpensive and available in quantities large enough to preserve large amounts of food. Without coal, consumers couldn’t afford the fresh food they demand.

One common preservative made from coal that has a “natural” beginning is calcium propanoate, which is the salt of propanoic acid. Although used in meat and dairy products, it is generally used in baked goods as a mold inhibitor.

And, like many preservatives, propanoic acid has an organic beginning. Propanoic acid was first described in 1844 by Johann Gottlieb, who discovered it when decomposing sugar. Since then, it has been used as a preservative for both human and animal food.

Although propanioc acid and calcium propanoate can be manufactured from sugar, that method is very expensive and wouldn’t produce enough preservative for the food industry. Therefore, propanioc acid is produced by the hydrocarboxylation of ethylene, another coal chemical feedstock.

In some cases, these coal based preservatives actually prevent the creation of carcinogens in food. One such chemical is Ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid (EDTA), which may be in the soft drink you are consuming right now. The compound was first produced in 1935 by Ferdinand Munz, who prepared the compound from ethylenediamine, a coal based chemical. Today it is found in soft drinks containing ascorbic acid and sodium benzoate. EDTA prevents the creation of benzene (a carcinogen) in the soft drink.

Ironically, even the new generation of “safe, organic” food additives rely on coal based chemicals. Take sodium erythorbate, a food additive used in meats, poultry, and soft drinks. When used in processed meat it increases the rate at which nitrate reduces to nitric oxide, which allows the meat to cure faster while keeping a pink color. Since it is structurally related to vitamin C, it helps improve flavor stability and prevents the formation of some carcinogens. Its use has increased since the U.S. Food and Drug Administration banned the use of sulfites as preservatives in fresh foods.

Sodium erythorbate is also popular because it is produced from the fermentation of starches in corn and is viewed by consumers as “natural.” However, if it wasn’t for coal based products, sodium erythorbate would be hard to produce.

While some things, like grapes and grape juice, ferment naturally, the fermentation of corn starch is much harder. In order to encourage fermentation, thickeners need to be added to encourage the growth of the organisms that ferment the corn. Carboxymethyl cellulose is the thickening agent. This thickener is used to thicken everything from ice cream to drilling mud. However, it is also used to thicken the mash necessary for the production of sodium erthorbate. The feedstock comes from the carbonylation of methanol, a coal derived chemical.

As much as “green” consumers demand “organic” foods made without chemicals, the reality is that the very organic substances they want are based on the very same substance they hate so much – coal.