Rising action: the baking powder debate

While working on a new novel, I needed a way to determine if something was acidic. I asked myself, how about adding baking powder and seeing it if fizzes–ala the volcano kids like to make with our kitchen supplies? But, since this is a paranormal historical, I wondered: was baking soda or anything like it even used in 1872? The answer is Yes. Baking soda’s near twin, soda ash or sodium carbonate has been used since the days when chemistry was alchemy or “the dark art of Egypt” and was used in mummification. It can be mined or produced chemically.

An old bottle of sodium carbonate, NaCO3, also known as soda ash

Baking soda, a less caustic close relative to soda ash, known to chemists as sodium bicarbonate, can be found along with sodium carbonate in natural mineral springs. Saratoga New York and Manitou Springs Colorado are examples of highly bicarbonated waters. It’s believed that an underground reaction produces the bicarbonate. Carbonates are common in nature and are found in limestone and shells in the form of calcium carbonate, and even in geodes.

The baking product, baking soda, was developed in by Church & Dwight to replace potash or potassium carbonate made from wood ashes, which was hard to make, not very pure, and had a weird smell.

Most laboratories have some baking soda (sodium bicarbonate, NaHCO3) handy to neutralize acid spills

Baking soda, soda ash and baking powder act as rising or leavening agents, producing bubbles of carbon dioxide to make baked goods rise and become fluffy. This rising action is called leavening. An alternative to adding a leavening agent is to whip the substance and stir in air.

Yeast is biological leavening agent, releasing carbon dioxide as an an exhale. The problem is, it takes a while to act.

Baking soda works almost instantly, but must be mixed with an acid such as cream of tartar, sour milk, sour cream, or vinegar, creating the carbon dioxide producing reaction. It’s also dependent on the amount of acid added and some things such as sour milk are not consistent in their composition.

The first baking powder contained baking soda and cream of tartar (tartaric acid, a by-product of wine making) which reacted together quickly and was expensive. Modern double acting baking powder contains an acid and baking soda plus corn starch to keep them from reacting when solid.

And believe it or not, controversy surrounded it.

Created in 1859, the first modern version contained monocalcium phosphate, calcium dihydrogenphosphate to chemists, made from animal bones. Corn starch, and baking soda were additional ingredients. It slowly activated when water was added and fully reacted when heated (making it double acting and slower rising) Later, the monocalcium phosphate used was mined. This company was Rumford, which still makes this version of baking powder. Rival companies sprung up and alum, which was very cheap, was used in products such as Clabber Girl, clabber being sour milk. Thanks to politicians bought with baking powder fortunes, the alum based products were temporarily banned as being unhealthy.

Despite politics, the alum based powders won out due to their low price. But was the competition right, are alum based powders are bad for you? What do we know about the health effects of aluminum, the third most common element in the Earth’s crust?

Recently, nanoaluminum particles were found to impair memory and cognition in zebra fish. (Fan, Rong, et al. “Effects of Nano-Alumina on Learning and Memory Levels in Zebrafish: Roles of Particle Size and Aluminum Ion.” Huanjing Yu Zhiye Yixue = Journal of Environmental & Occupational Medicine, vol. 36, no. 6, 2019, pp. 526.)

Miners exposed to aluminum dust have elevated incidences of Parkinson’s. (Zeng, Xiaoke, M.Sc, et al. “Aluminum Dust Exposure and Risk of Neurodegenerative Diseases in a Cohort of Male Miners in Ontario, Canada.” Scandinavian Journal of Work, Environment & Health, vol. 47, no. 7, 2021, pp. 531-539. )

There are perhaps links to aluminum exposure through dust or food and neurological problems. However, most studies do not find aluminum to be easily absorbed when eaten or put on the skin. (Lead is a much greater risk and is associated with breast cancer so it would be better to worry about bullets than your leavening agent.) Aluminum and other metals are found in the brains of people who had Alzheimer’s, but it’s not known if the aluminum caused the disease since healthy brains also have some aluminum in them. One except is if aluminum is mixed with a fluoride product. This combination is toxic. One thing to keep in mind is that aluminum is commonly used in water treatments to remove cloudiness.

In any case, most baking powder now is alum based for better or worse. But there are exceptions for those who want the good-old fashioned formula. So bakers, rise and shine!

No need for sour milk. Have some alum instead.
No bones about it, alternative baking powders are still out there.

4 thoughts on “Rising action: the baking powder debate

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