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January, 2010

Wax Facts

By Dennis Linden

A recent encounter with
Melissa’s Wax Coated Jicama at my own local market prompts this feature.

Melissa’s Wax Coated Jicama

At the risk of sounding too much like a “paid for by the committee to re-elect…” testimonial, the Jicama was beautiful -- bright, clean and blemish free. Well, as beautiful as this popular root can be, especially when compared to the bruised, dried-out new crop Jicama that was normally available at this time of year until the process of coating it with food grade paraffin virtually eliminated this seasonal condition problem.

New crop Jicama has a very tender skin that bruises easily and dries out quickly because the thin skin also allows the root to lose moisture. This perishability has been the reasons for the item’s motley appearance at this time of year by the time it got to retail outlets. The solution was found in an inert food grade wax that is now applied to Jicama from November through late February or early March, depending on the skin condition as the new crop matures in storage. Finding such clean and fresh looking Jicama in January brought two simultaneous thoughts to mind. First was my continued amazement with the inventiveness of the perishable produce industry, which always seems to find a way to overcome Ma Nature’s seasonal variables. The second thought, as a marketing veteran of both conventional and organic produce, was the awareness that there continues to be a myth surrounding food grade coatings on fruits and vegetables that remains almost impossible to dispel; still, every article on this subject helps!

The myth is most apparent by comparing the visual difference between a retail display of organic apples to that of conventionally-grown apples of the same variety. Organic apples lack the high gloss shine attained from wax that is applied to all conventionally-grown apples during the sorting and packing process. The perception is that a waxed apple would disqualify it from being certified as organic. The fact is that this innocuous gloss is made from one of two very natural ingredients, either a bug or a tree, and neither would jeopardize a crop’s organic certification. However, the notion that these waxes are toxic or contain toxins is so ingrained in the psyche of the organic consumer, that professional marketers of organics find it impossible to overcome. There is no wax applied to organic apples, for protection or cosmetic purposes, because false public perceptions simply demand it. Here’s the real scoop about the waxes used on apples, most citrus and many pepper varieties. There are two basic waxes that command most of the market share in the fresh produce industry – carnauba and shellac. No doubt, these names have helped propagate the false assumptions of their chemical natures and harmful-if-ingested danger. However, the science behind their manufacture reveals the truth about these substances.

Food grade shellac wax is made from “lac”, the red, hardened secretion of the insect by the same name. This tiny insect sucks the sap of selected trees and bushes, and secretes this “lac” as a self-protective covering. The furniture polish, also called “shellac”, does start with this same substance, then many other chemical ingredients are added that make it a wonderful coating for woods; rest assured, this kind of shellac is NOT being brushed on anything eatable. Food grade shellac is about as harmless as the honey of a bee. In fact, the lac bug’s “honey” is simply scraped from the host tree, dried to a powder, melted down and then treated with a neutralizing alkali, which is a nitrogenous vegetable substance, so it will dissolve. Lac is cultivated in India, Thailand, and Burma. Shellacs have many other food uses including coatings on pills and jelly beans.

Carnauba is a vegetable wax obtained from the fronds of a Brazilian palm tree known as the "Tree of Life". A gooey sap-like substance is extracted from this palm, emulsified with water and treated with oleic acid to prevent the wax from hardening. Oleic acid is a fatty acid found in vegetable oils. The wax is then sprayed on the fruit, which is allowed to dry and the water to evaporate. Completely natural, there is nothing harmful that cannot be ingested in this one either. The paraffin wax application that generated this article is the only artificially made food grade wax of the three. However, it is made of completely inert and indigestible elements that pass through the body without being broken down at all. Besides protecting tender, new crop Jicama from bruising and sealing in moisture, food-grade paraffin wax is the shiny coating used in candy-making and on several kinds of hard cheeses, like Edam, to protect it during the aging and shipping process.

The unpolished organic apple is probably here to stay because that is way the consumer thinks it should be. And, based on similar misconceptions, there is probably a concerned citizens group somewhere waving PARIFFIN FREE FOOD placards. Still, we hope this review of the real facts has armed you with knowledge that will help you make your own educated decisions about the foods you buy and consume.