Published online 16 March 2010 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news.2010.125
Updated online: 19 March 2010

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Italian molecular cookery 'ban' condemned

Decree to rein in additives could put more processed foods on restaurant tables.

Molecular cook prepares foodAn Italian decree that bans additives from restaurant kitchens could backfire.Willie B. Thomas / iStockphoto

An Italian decree that bans a plethora of food additives from restaurant kitchens has been dismissed as unscientific and irrational by food scientists contacted by Nature.

The decree has even failed to garner the support of the international 'Slow Food' movement, which promotes the use of traditional ingredients. Some believe that the ban could backfire spectacularly by forcing restaurants to serve processed foods, which are not subject to the restrictions.

The decree, tabled by Italian undersecretary for health Francesca Martini, came into effect on 18 February. One of its two articles bans the use — or even storage — of all additives (except sweeteners) for which current European Union (EU) legislation sets a maximum acceptable daily intake (ADI). The second article states that restaurants must reveal to customers any additives they use in their recipes. Unless it is renewed, the decree is valid until the end of the year.

Additives are used to improve the flavour, texture, colour, appearance and consistency of food, and include nitrates and nitrites — used, for example, as preservatives in salami — phosphates, which are present in most baking powders, and monosodium glutamate, a flavour enhancer used widely in Asian dishes. Many of the additives have been shown to be harmless to humans at doses much higher than the EU's ADIs.

"These additives have been extensively tested and it's completely irrational to forbid them," says physical chemist Hervé This of the National Institute for Agricultural Research in Paris who coined the term 'molecular gastronomy' to describe the study of the physical and chemical processes that occur during cooking.

TV dinner

Martini's decision seems to have been spurred by Striscia la Notizia, a popular satirical television show in Italy that has campaigned for restaurants to provide more information about the food they serve and has called for them to preserve Italy's traditional cuisine in the face of the growing popularity of molecular cookery — the use of new tools or chemical additives by chefs such as Britain's Heston Blumenthal and Spaniard Ferran Adrià to create new recipes. The programme has been particularly critical of the 'Texturas' product line by Adrià and his brother Albert. During a television interview with Striscia la Notizia on 22 December 2009, Martini promised to ban all chemicals used in molecular cooking — including liquid nitrogen, which is widely used to 'flash freeze' foods such as ice cream.

“It seems ridiculous to try to legislate against progress, for that is what this Italian ban seems to me to do.”


"But almost none of the molecular gastronomy ingredients are touched by the final version of the decree," says physicist Davide Cassi, an advocate of molecular cookery at the University of Parma in Italy. The decree will probably damage Chinese cuisine more than molecular cuisine, he says.

Peter Barham, a physicist at the University of Bristol, UK, who collaborates with Blumenthal, says the ban "is more likely to damage than improve the reputation of Italian cuisine". "It seems ridiculous to try to legislate against progress, for that is what this Italian ban seems to me to do," he adds. "I can see no sensible scientific or health arguments to support it."

Pie in the sky

Dario Bressanini, a chemist and cookery enthusiast at the University of Insubria in Como, who runs a blog on using scientific tricks in the kitchen, says that the ban "doesn't make sense or stand up to scientific scrutiny". He adds that "monosodium glutamate occurs naturally and in high concentrations in Parmesan cheese and tomatoes, so why don't we forbid their use altogether too?"

According to Bressanini, the new law will probably affect pastry products made in restaurants, such as apple pies made with baking powder. The decree, however, doesn't ban the industrial use of additives and doesn't seem to affect Adrià's product lines either, although Adrià's Italian distributor told Nature that they will nevertheless appeal to the local administrative tribunal in Rome to protect its client.

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Meanwhile, Roberto Burdese, president of Slow Food Italy, says that although regulations and limitations should be set on the additives used by the food industry, "since they arrive on our tables in vast quantities", the organization does not support the ban. The mission of Slow Food International includes preserving traditional cuisine and spreading taste education, but, says Burdese, "We don't oppose the use of additives in restaurants, if chefs handle them wisely, respecting the limits, and innovation is welcome when it brings quality."

The second article of the law — which would have restaurants list all their additives — is less divisive. But This warns that too much information on the menu could spoil the mystery of great food. "Should we have 20 lines with all the codes and names for each dish? Where goes poetry and art then?"

But This has no concerns about the future relationship between science and cooking. "Forget vegetables and meat," he says. "I'm looking for a dish made with pure compounds. You cannot stop innovation!" 

Updated:

Italian undersecretary for health Francesca Martini has defended the additive ban in a statement sent to Nature on 19 March. “With this decree the Ministry of Health, as well as being consistent with what’s been established by international scientific organizations, has prevented improper or accidental uses [of additives] by chefs that might pose a risk to consumers,” she said. Martini noted that, unlike restaurants, the food industry “employs additives under conditions controlled by staff that are aware of how to use them”.

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