BEIJING - Regulators are busy drafting food safety standards for pistachios to prevent widespread bleaching of the product, experts said.
"Due to traditional eating habits, bleached pistachios are prevailing in China because of their 'clean look'," said Weng Yangyang, secretary-general of the committee for seeds and nuts of the China National Food Industry Association.
The association will create a set of standards within the year, regulating the production of several nuts including pistachios, peanuts and almonds, Weng said on Saturday during the World Nuts and Dried Fruit Congress.
The bleaching of pistachios will be addressed in the standards, Weng said, adding that the introduction of the standards is expected to improve the industry's product qualities and food safety.
The standards will establish regulative and legal matters within the nuts industry, she said.
A draft of the standards will be posted on the association's official website in late July to solicit public comments and suggestions.
"Data collected within the industry shows that 90 percent of the pistachios sold in the Chinese market have been bleached," said Fang Ming, dean of the food science and engineering department at the East China University of Science and Technology. Pistachios have become a major snack in China only within the past few years, Fang said. With no knowledge of the nuts' natural look, most consumers mistake the white-shelled pistachios as the good ones.
"The bleaching is to cater to the mass consumer idea of 'the brighter, the better', which covers up quality flaws. Most people may not know the nuts have naturally light creamy shells," Fang said.
Bleaching pistachios is against the country's Food Safety Law, he said.
"According to article 45, the law allows the use of food additives only when it's technically necessary, but the bleaching of pistachios is obviously not appropriate," Fang said.
"The often-used bleacher peroxide is also listed as an assistant item in food processing and requires cautious use," he said.
Although there is no solid evidence of the possible harm bleached pistachios might bring to consumers' health, bleaching does lead to a nutritional loss in the nuts, experts said.
For example, vitamin B1, which is contained in unprocessed pistachios, is removed during the bleaching process, statistics from the USDA National Nutrition Database show.
Consumers' lack of knowledge about the bleaching issue was a major reason for their preference for the white-shelled pistachios, said Anita Lam, Asia Pacific general manager at Paramount Farms, a US-based grower and processor of pistachios and almonds.
Lam said a 100-sample random survey at Shanghai stores conducted by her company showed that 76 percent of the consumers did not know that the white-shelled nuts had been bleached, and 90 percent said they wouldn't buy any bleached nuts after learning about the bleaching issue.
"As far as I know, China is the only place where the nuts are bleached. The white-shelled ones are even exported to some countries in Southeast Asia," she said.
Bian Zhenhu, vice-chairman of the China Chamber of Commerce of Import and Export of Foodstuffs, Native Produce and Animal By-Products, said China has become the world's largest consumer of pistachios.
A total of 150,000 tons of pistachios have been sold in the country this year, which is one-third of the global trade and the number is increasing, Bian said.