Evil E numbers?

Posted by Josette Dunn on 27th August 2010

‘Additive-Free’ has, misleadingly, become synonymous with ‘healthy’, thanks to the clever marketing people who work in the food industry.

To combat this there is going to be a three-part documentary on ‘E numbers’ on BBC Two (UK) not, it seems, as another attempt to demonise the colours and preservatives used in some foods, but to dispel some of the myths surrounding additives.

The term ‘E number’ is simply a reference given to food additives that have been approved for use in the EU and many of these are from natural sources – some of their familiar names include nitrogen, fatty acids, chlorophyll, pectin and vitamin c.

This week the Mail on Sunday summed up some of the interesting issues that the documentary covers, including an experiment that involved tasting canned peas, one containing peas made bright green using food dye and the other left pale green as a result of the canning process. All those asked said that the bright green peas tasted better, demonstrating that what food looks like is important for our perception of taste.

One of the other less savoury experiments involved the presenter making a cake from substances in his body which work as additives – lysosyme from his tears, propionic acid from his sweat, L-cysteine from his hair, hydrochloric acid from the digestive acid of his stomach and glycerol from his fat. Of course these aren’t the sources of additives used commercially, which must also meet legal specifications, but it is a persuasive demonstration that many substances with additive functions occur naturally.

One of the most demonised of all additives, monosodium glutamate, can be found naturally in broccoli, mushrooms and tomatoes and is produced commercially through the fermentation of molasses and sugar beet.

Additives can have an important role in our food, including preventing the growth of harmful bacteria, stopping food going off, helping jam to set or replacing colour that’s lost during processing. Their use is carefully regulated and they’re only allowed to be added to food if they’re proven to be safe, necessary and will not mislead consumers.

So who do you believe, the independent scientists who advise us on safety, or the people trying to sell you something that is ‘Additive-Free’ with all that implies?