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Olympics Take a Healthy Bite Out of Your Wallet

August 3, 2008

How are the Beijing Olympics contributing to a worldwide shortage of vitamin C?

In their efforts to curb air pollution for the upcoming games, the Chinese shut down manufacturing plants in and around Beijing _ including cutbacks at factories producing 80 percent of the world’s ascorbic acid, more commonly known as vitamin C.

Experts say the shortage and resulting price increases will not likely spark an outbreak of scurvy, the nemesis of Old World sailors on extended voyages without fresh fruits and vegetables.

But ascorbic acid is crucial to modern food and beverage production, and is an important vitamin supplement in the United States and worldwide.

Ascorbic acid is a common ingredient in everything from cosmetics to baked goods. It is used to make bread softer and more uniform, and some Midwestern bakers are working hard to find adequate supplies.

“I know there’s talk out there (about the problem), but I don’t have the sense there is a panic yet,” said Brian Strouts of AIB International, formerly the American Institute of Baking, in Manhattan, Kan.

Vitamin C also is necessary for human growth and development. Some advocates claim it can even ward off the adverse health effects of, well … pollution.

“That is not good,” said Jeanne Drisko, a doctor at the University of Kansas Medical Center. “I have a lot of patients getting vitamin C, and this is very scary to me.”

So how did this happen?

The Chinese have been cornering the market on ascorbic acid for years, experts say, and now four of the five remaining producers are near the smog-shrouded Chinese capital.

The recent factory shutdowns _ part of an effort to reduce pollution from coal-fired power plants _ only worsened what Leo Hepner calls “a severe global shortage of ascorbic acid.”

Hepner, a London-based food and nutrition consultant, said the Chinese in recent years had dumped ascorbic acid on the world market and sold it for much less than it had cost to produce. That in turn drove out most of the competition.

The only remaining producer outside China is Netherlands-based DSM. Its plant in Scotland is running at capacity and still cannot meet world demand, said DSM’s Martijn Adorf.

China’s near-monopoly opened the door to huge price increases, Hepner added, and sparked an ongoing antitrust lawsuit. Much like a pole vaulter, ascorbic acid prices shot up from $3.50 a kilogram (2.2 pounds) last year to $22 today.

“Then last year, they (the Chinese) woke up to the fact that they had environmental pollution and that the Olympic Games were around the corner,” Hepner explained. “As a result, they had to reduce factory output, and that hit the vitamin C business particularly badly.”

A call to the Chinese Embassy in Washington seeking comment was not returned.

It’s hard to say how long the shortage and higher costs will continue, Hepner said. Hefty prices for corn _ which is used to make ascorbic acid as well as ethanol _ are not helping matters any.

Hepner blames Western producers for taking advantage of China’s bargain-basement prices and doing little to avert the problem.

As for the Chinese, Hepner said, “they have almost destroyed the global citric acid business _ even before they have won their first gold medal in the Olympic Games.”

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(c) 2008, The Kansas City Star.

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