The other week I bought a frozen Black Forest Gateau: a convenience food par excellence - bought from a supermarket in a hurry on my way to work. It looked a picture: layers of cream, jam, rich dark cake and luscious folds of chocolate icing. But I had read the list of ingredients on the packet and knew that my gateau was a mere confection of colours, flavourings, antioxidants and preservatives.
But does our food really need the chemical helping hand, and do the additives harm us? Food additives fall into two broad categories: those which prevent food going bad (by stopping mould, bacteria or rancidity) and those which make what we eat more appealing in colour, flavour and texture. Their use has increased along with the boom in processed foods, so that in the US there are now some 4,000 of these chemicals shaken, dripped and stirred into the food.
Unlike the chemicals used on the farm as pesticides, food additives are not designed to be toxic - except the fungicidal and antibacterial ones. These - often cosily called preservatives - prevent micro-organisms like the botulism bacteria growing on preserved food like ham and bacon.
So to argue that all additives are badditives is as absurd as to say they are all safe. However some are more questionable than others, especially cosmetic food colours and flavours which are not fully regulated. These include the alt-pervasive monosodium glutamate, associated with the allergic reaction known as ‘Chinese Restaurant Syndrome’ (see Box overleaf.)
Food additives are not altogether new. Thousands of years ago the Chinese used ethylene and propylene produced by kerosene combustion to ripen bananas and peas. In Britain in the Middle Ages beer was flavoured for the first time with an additive called hops to cries of ‘adulteration!’ from outraged real-alers of the day.
What has changed is not that we add things to our food and drink to make it look or taste nice, but that it is done now on a huge scale. It is estimated by Health and Welfare Canada (the food standards body) that Canadians ingest some three kilograms of food additives per person each year: and similar amounts are consumed in other Western countries.
A recent study in the UK consumer magazine Which? based on large-scale epidemiological research placed additives very low on the list of what causes cancer. Taken together with occupational hazards, pollution and industrial products, they are reckoned to account for only eight per cent of all cancers. But other people, like environmentalist Erik Eckholm, believe that the exact contribution of additives to the cancer rate is ‘a conspicuous unknown’ and that unpleasant surprises are probably in store for us in future years. He points out that the only certainty is that ‘citizens in the wealthiest countries ingest a few thousand different chemical compounds, most of which have not yet been adequately tested for links to cancer, genetic mutations, birth defects or behavioural problems’.
Reflecting the increase in processed foods in our supermarkets in the last 15 years are new laws covering additives. Some originally given the official seal of approval have since been withdrawn - like the artificial sweetener saccharin now banned except for some uses in the US and Canada because of its links with cancer.
The US Food and Drug Administration seems more finickity about dubious substances than its counterparts in other countries. This is because of a piece of legislation called the ‘Delaney clause’ which states that ‘no additive shall be deemed safe if it is found to induce cancer when ingested by man or animal’. Given that proviso, what government would risk letting a suspect additive stay on the market? In Australia, Europe, New Zealand and Canada the food laws appear more relaxed, based on a mixture of trusting the manufacturer and the notion of not making a fuss about a relatively tiny proportion of what we eat.
But we know very little about the long-term low dose effects of adding chemicals to our food. Some colours are associated with food allergies. Others like ‘E123’ (amaranth - US Red Dye No 2) is outlawed in the USSR, Malaysia and the US because it is linked with cancer, miscarriages and birth defects in humans. Yet it is used in Britain in the blackcurrant drink Ribena, often promoted as a health-giving drink suitable for pregnant women and young children.
And what is considered safe in one country may fail the grade in another. Each country is susceptible to the pressures from the food industry and from consumers. In Australia, the US and Canada there are consumer groups studying all aspects of food additives, including the ‘hidden’ additives angle. These are the chemicals which may come into our food from pesticide residues, from contact with wrappings like cellophane, from cosmetic chemicals injected into fruit skin to give colour, from wax burnishes used to polish up the skin of fruits, and the possible hazards of using irradiation to preserve fruit and other foods. Some groups, notably Pollution Probe in Canada, the Consumers’ Union in the US and the Australian Consumers’ Association, have brought out publications for people to use when they go shopping so they can make informed decisions about what they buy.
Since joining the EEC, Britain has harmonised her ingredient labelling, listing the items in descending order of the amount used. Instead of easy-going terms like ‘colours’ and ‘preservatives’ there are now ‘E’ numbers. Broadly the E100 series are colours, E200 series are mainly preservatives, E300 are antioxidants and E400 are a hotch-potch of stabilisers, emulsifiers, gelling and anti-coagulating agents.
Ingredient labelling is one part of the picture. Nutritional labelling - details of what protein, fat, sugar, carbohydrate and so on is in the food - is the next step. The US and some Scandinavian countries have had nutritional labelling for several years. But critics claim that this is not useful because ordinary people do not know what it means. The same logic is used against widespread introduction of the US practise of giving an ingredient its chemical name. People in shops - you and me - ‘wouldn’t understand’. One could argue that ordinary shoppers haven’t a clue what ‘E320’ means either. One thing’s for sure, however: it sounds a lot more cosy than butylated hydroxyanisole.
In the end the debate about labelling smacks too much of an unwillingness to come clean and tell people what’s in the food - in case they stop buying it. As Reginald Watts, chairman of Burson Marsteller, put it: ‘teaching good nutrition . . . is a killer: it won’t succeed in developing anybody’s market’.
But not all manufacturers share this view. Over ten years ago in Sweden the Nestle’s subsidiary Findus started putting nutritional information on its label. Unilever’s Birds Eye subsidiary voluntarily gives ‘food facts’ on their British products, based on the American system of stating the amount of calories, say, in one serving. Most European food producers, however, prefer the confusing gram per 100 gram approach (‘5g of protein per 100g of the product’ for example), which makes it difficult to work out exactly how much protein you are getting in one slice of bread.
Just because we have food regulatory bodies and because some manufacturers are beginning to face up to their responsibilities does not mean we can give up our own responsibility as consumers. A government may play down the hazards of an additive in order not to seem to be over-reacting. And it may be slow to initiate nutrition education because of industry pressure. There are simply too many powerful vested interests at work for us to assume that the food we are offered for sale is good for us.
If we want to control what goes into our food, and what is sold in our shops, then we have to speak up. We should press for more specific food facts: such as sugar content being given in an equivalent number of sugar lumps instead of being disguised as ‘glucose syrup’; or fat being labelled as fat instead of as meat, and so on. We can ask government authorities and consumer organisations to publish lists of the chemicals added to our food and their possible side effects. We can even demand government health warnings on our food, What about one for orange drinks: ‘This product contains tartrazine and benzoic acid. Be careful if you have allergy problems’. Or one for cakes: ‘This cake contains a high level of sugar. Sugar is associated with obesity, heart disease, diabetes and is the major cause of tooth decay’. Perhaps we should forget about E numbers and chemical names and go in for some plain speaking.