Samui Wining & Dining
E is for Eating
We all know everything about E Numbers, don’t we?

 

E is for EatingBefore I start I’d just like to say that this article is about E numbers in foods. So if you are under 25 years of age it isn’t about how many E’s (Ecstasy tablets) there are in Thailand. They are illegal, though strangely readily available on many a street corner. Then again prostitution, gambling and riding a motorbike without a helmet are also illegal here. But I digress, perhaps after reading this you’ll be far more concerned about what’s in your food rather than what’s in your average teenager’s back pocket.

 

Food additives are substances added to food to preserve flavour or improve its taste and appearance. Some additives have been used for centuries, for example: preserving food by pickling (with vinegar); salting, as with bacon; preserving sweets; or using sulfur dioxide, as in some wines. With the advent of processed foods in the second half of the 20th century, many more additives have been introduced, of both natural and artificial origin.

 

To regulate these additives, and inform consumers, each additive is assigned a unique number. Initially, these were the ‘E numbers’ used in Europe for all approved additives. This numbering scheme has now been adopted and extended by the Codex Alimentarius Committee to internationally identify all additives, regardless of whether they are approved for use.

 

E numbers are all prefixed, but countries outside Europe use only the number, whether the additive is approved in Europe or not. For example, acetic acid is written as E260 on products sold in Europe, but is simply known as additive 260 in some countries. Additive 103, alkanet, is not approved for use in Europe so does not have an E number, although it is approved for use in Australia and New Zealand. Since 1987, Australia has had an approved system of labeling for additives in packaged foods. Each food additive has to be named or numbered. The numbers are the same as in Europe, but without the prefix ‘E’. In the United States, the Food and Drug Administration listed these items as ‘Generally recognized as safe’. It’s that almost flippant use of the word ‘Generally’ that rings alarm bells loud and clear in my head.

 

It’s said that most food additives are ‘generally’ considered safe. However, some are known to be carcinogenic or toxic. Hyperactivity in children, allergies, asthma, and migraines are sometimes thought to be associated with adverse reactions to food additives. And some of these latter additives are open to debates and disagreements over whether they should be allowed at all. Part of the problem if you do have an adverse effect to an additive is finding out which one it is. There are hundreds if not thousands of them.

 

They are divided into sections and subdivided again, for example: numbers 100–199 are colours, with 110-119 oranges, 130-139 blues and violets, 150-159 browns and blacks, and so on. The 200’s are preservatives; the 300’s are antioxidants and acidity regulators; 400’s are thickeners, stabilisers and emulsifiers; 500’s are pH regulators and anti-caking agents; 600’s are flavour enhancers; and then there are a whole range of miscellaneous things, like waxes, synthetic glazes, improving agents, packaging gasses, sweeteners, foaming agents, chemicals that do not fall into any standard classification and a whole load that exist but without an E number. I would be confused but I think my flight-or-fight mechanism just kicked in and I am way too scared to think about anything else.

 

In the United Kingdom, the law requires that food labels must include basic information. This includes the name or description of the food, manufacturer’s name and address, place of origin, any special storage or cooking instructions, information about certain processes used in manufacturing, such as pasteurized, dried, frozen, concentrated or smoked. Nutritional information is sometimes included, but isn’t required by law unless the manufacturer claims a product is, for example, ‘low fat’ or ‘high fibre’. Certain food products are allowed to be sold by volume, others are sold by weight. An ‘e’ symbol next to the weight means that an average weight must be accurate, but the weight of each pack may vary slightly.

 

‘Best before’ dates are used on less perishable foods. Food eaten after the date displayed may not be dangerous but will be past its best. Both assume that food has been correctly stored. Sell by or display-until dates are also used, however it’s not an offence to sell food past this date. Ingredients, including additives, must be listed in descending order of weight. From February 2000, products also had to declare the percentage of their key ingredients, for example the amount of fish in a fish cake or lemon in a lemon meringue pie.

 

However, there are some things that food labels don’t tell us. Consumers say they often find labels confusing and difficult to understand, and it’s easy to see why. Despite some welcome moves from government and food manufacturers to tighten up on misleading labels and provide more information, in too many cases it’s still possible for manufacturers to pull the wool over our eyes. Some food and drinks are exempt from having to list their ingredients at all whilst you can be kept in the dark or easily misled about a whole host of other information, such as the way food has been produced or what nutrients it contains. Even when food is labeled, the information given is not always clear, easy to understand or complete.

 

For example:

Weasel words - such as ‘traditional’, ‘farmhouse’, ‘original’, ‘special’, ‘selected’ and ‘wholesome’ all aim to reassure us about a food’s origins or persuade us that we are buying something ‘natural’ or a little bit special. But, without any further explanation, these are all meaningless.

 

Country of origin ‘British’ bacon can be made from imported pork, ‘English’ butter can be churned from imported milk and olive oil ‘bottled in Italy’ need not be made from Italian olives. That’s because labels can declare the ‘country of origin’ as the place where the food last underwent a ‘substantial change’.

 

Nutritional information - Companies aren’t obliged to tell you how much fat, sugar or salt is in their food (unless they make a claim such as ‘low fat’). Many do provide some information, although shoppers say they often find the way this is presented is unhelpful and confusing.

 

Health claims - Terms such as ‘no added sugar’ and ‘low-fat’, or claims for added vitamins and other mysterious-sounding ingredients that promise to ‘maintain a healthy heart’, ‘reduce cholesterol’ or ‘aid digestion’, persuade us to believe these products are good for us. But treat such claims with caution. There are few regulations covering their use, which makes it hard to judge the products with genuine benefits from those that are pure marketing hype. Claims can also be used selectively – for instance, a breakfast cereal claiming to be ‘low in fat’ may also be high in sugar and salt.

 

Hidden ingredients - Products labeled ‘No added sugar’ may contain all kinds of other sweeteners such as fruit juices, syrups or honey, which are just as sweet and tooth-rotting. Allergy sufferers may find it hard to spot ‘hidden’' allergens – for example, peanut oil may be labeled as ‘vegetable oil’. Also bear in mind that not all ingredients derived from genetically modified crops need to be labeled as such.

 

Not all they seem - Fish ‘steaks’ can be made up of off-cuts and flakes of fish, blended and reformed. Similarly, ‘smoked’ haddock may have just been soaked in a ‘smoke flavour’ solution.

 

Perhaps the solution would be to eat a lot more fresh rather than processed foods. Look in a Thai person’s house; you won’t see many frozen foods, tins or packets of things. And that’s one advantage of being in Thailand; you can eat fresh, quality food for every single meal if you wish, and very cheaply into the bargain. We should probably be far more concerned about ‘E’ numbers in our food than the number of ‘E’s in our children’s pockets. Now that’s food for thought!

 

Johnny Paterson

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