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Rancidification, the product of which can be described as rancidity, is the chemical decomposition of fats, oils and other lipids (this degradation also occurs in mechanical cutting fluids). When these processes occur in food, undesirable odors and flavors can result. In some cases, however, the flavors can be desirable (as in aged cheeses). In processed meats, these flavors are collectively known as warmed-over flavor. Rancidification can also detract from the nutritional value of the food. Some vitamins are highly sensitive to degradation.
Three pathways for rancidification are recognized.
Hydrolytic rancidity occurs when water splits fatty acid chains away from the glycerol backbone in triglycerides (fats). The chemical term is ester hydrolysis. Usually this hydrolysis process goes unnoticed, since most fatty acids are odorless and tasteless. A particular problem arises with butter, which contains triglycerides with a high content of butyric acid derivatives and acetic acids.
Oxidative rancidity is associated with the degradation by oxygen in the air. Via a free radical process, the double bonds of an unsaturated fatty acid can undergo cleavage, releasing volatile aldehydes and ketones. This process can be suppressed by the exclusion of oxygen or by the addition of antioxidants. Oxidation primarily occurs with unsaturated fats.
Antioxidants are often added to fat-containing foods to delay the onset or slow the development of rancidity due to oxidation. Natural antioxidants include polyphenols (for instance flavonoids), ascorbic acid (vitamin C) and tocopherols (vitamin E). Synthetic antioxidants include butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA), butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT), TBHQ, propyl gallate and ethoxyquin. The natural antioxidants tend to be short-lived, so synthetic antioxidants are used when a longer shelf-life is preferred. The effectiveness of water-soluble antioxidants is limited in preventing direct oxidation within fats, but is valuable in intercepting free radicals that travel through the aqueous parts of foods. A combination of water-soluble and fat-soluble antioxidants is ideal, usually in the ratio of fat to water.
In addition, rancidification can be decreased, but not completely eliminated, by storing fats and oils in a cool, dark place with little exposure to oxygen or free radicals, since heat and light accelerate the rate of reaction of fats with oxygen. The addition of antimicrobial agents[clarification needed] can also delay or prevent rancidification by inhibiting the growth of bacteria or other micro-organisms.
Oxygen scavenging technology can be used to remove oxygen from food packaging and therefore prevent oxidative rancidification.
Measurement of oxidative stability
Oxidative stability is a measure of an oil or fat's resistance to oxidation. Because the process takes place through a chain reaction, the oxidation reaction has a period when it is relatively slow, before it suddenly speeds up. The time for this to happen is called the "induction time", and it is repeatable under identical conditions (temperature, air flow, etc.). There are a number of ways to measure the progress of the oxidation reaction. One of the most popular methods currently in use is the Rancimat method.
The Rancimat method is carried out using an air current at temperatures between 50 and 220 °C. The volatile oxidation products (largely formic acidp. 47) are carried by the air current into the measuring vessel, where they are absorbed (dissolve) in the measuring fluid (distilled water). By continuous measurement of the conductivity of this solution, oxidation curves can be generated. The cusp point of the oxidation curve (the point where a rapid rise in the conductivity starts) gives the induction time of the rancidification reaction, and can be taken as an indication of the oxidative stability of the sample.
The Rancimat method, the oxidative stability instrument (OSI) and the oxidograph were all developed as automatic versions of the more complicated AOM (active oxygen method), which is based on measuring peroxide values, for determining the induction time of fats and oils. Over time, the rancimat method has become established, and it has been accepted into a number of national and international standards, for example AOCS Cd 12b-92 and ISO 6886.
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