Post No.: 0269
In Europe, there are concerns of ‘E numbers’ regarding food additives. But the ‘E’ prefix just stands for ‘Europe’ and signifies that the European Food Safety Authority has assessed the additive as safe i.e. it passes European regulations. Some ‘E numbers’ exist in natural organic products (e.g. vitamin C) and some are even naturally synthesised in our bodies too (e.g. vitamin B3). Some additives inhibit harmful mould growth to make foods safer to eat for longer.
Yes, some food additives seem outright bizarre (e.g. castoreum!) but in a well-regulated environment they are tested as safe for consumption – at least according to current tests, standards, acceptable quantities and when tested individually, hence the status could change for a particular additive, quantity or combination of multiple additives (this includes pesticides used on crops too) – yet we shouldn’t pre-empt them getting banned without first seeing reproducible scientific support for why because we shouldn’t live in fear of things that are currently tested as safe before we have firm evidence why they should no longer be considered safe; otherwise we can start to assume that all sorts of things are harmful to us when they’ll never prove to be. In short, I’d personally rather follow the science-led research than the media-led fears.
They’re also at least listed on the packaging for anyone to check; although things like ‘processing aids’ (e.g. ‘meat glue’ for reformed meats) aren’t currently required to be listed because they’re not considered additives that remain in the final product. (‘Meat glues’ have caused some controversy, and although transglutaminase is generally recognised as safe by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) and Food and Drug Administration (FDA) – you can make up your own mind on it. I personally prefer not to consume much processed food for various reasons anyway. Note that bovine or porcine thrombin is not the same thing as transglutaminase – the former is banned in the EU.)
The main takeaway is not to over-generalise things one way or the other but to take each additive or preservative on a case-by-case basis, and to seek more information and research their details rather than rely on the scary headlines. And in most cases, the amount of fat, sugar and/or salt in processed foods will harm you way before any ‘E number’ food additive will too! Even here – and even if you were to only pay attention to the headlines – the headlines from a range of reputable news sources are more full of stories about the health problems of consuming too much fat, sugar and salt rather than any ‘E numbers’.
I also want to highlight the value of independent regulation to look after the public – food regulations mean that food manufacturers cannot legally sell e.g. confectionery or wine with toxic lead added. Lead was a common adulterant in and before the Victorian era because it’s sweet and can make candy look shinier and more appealing. Consumers at the time didn’t know it was the confectionery or wine causing them harm for them to learn to stop buying those products under pure self-regulatory market conditions because the ill effects were latent (whilst the pleasurable effects were immediate), thus the manufacturers were getting away with it whilst their consumers gradually grew worse in health. It’s hard for consumers to learn for themselves what’s best for them when they cannot easily link cause with effect because the effects take time to accumulate and are sometimes delayed for years; or they might eventually learn but only when it’s too late for them or for other innocent people if there are any externalities.
Regulation is a useful tool in, possibly not all but, most contexts – when it works, we don’t notice it and we take it all for granted. How many times have you picked something up in a shop and had to think ‘will this be safe for me and my family?’ We don’t need to because furry watchdogs are doing their best to look after us. It’s rational to not need to pull out your own personal adulteration or safety test kit every time you shop for anything but to pay a regulatory body that’ll do this for us, who are also powerful enough to stand up against industries to protect individual consumers who might not have enough resources to fight their own cases alone.
Consumer confidence, rather than pure caveat emptor (let the buyer beware), between customers and professional (i.e. not one-off ‘car boot sale’) retailers in most retail situations helps the economy because confidence, certainty and trust lubricate the economy. Regulators don’t always catch the fraudsters in time because criminals increasingly get more sophisticated – but in the main, in the food industries of well-developed areas of jurisdiction at least, we should be glad they exist. Woof!
So if additives or preservatives, in the quantities that are legally allowed in food or drink products, were or become scientifically proven to be harmful to us then they would’ve been or will become banned. Scare stories in the media grab attention but they’re sometimes over-played or falsehoods e.g. the over-inflated risks of monosodium glutamate (MSG), which has subsequently become one of the most scientifically-researched food additives as a result – the overwhelming consensus is that it’s generally safe for consumption. Note that glutamate is also abundantly found in tomatoes, cheese, mushrooms and most if not all things that taste umami/savoury. These are safe in certain amounts.
Of course everything becomes harmful if consumed in excessive amounts, including water i.e. drowning, or hyponatremia (overly low sodium levels in the blood due to being diluted too much in this case). Caffeine and alcohol are both classified as drugs for they cause a direct physiological (and often psychological) change in the body, yet most people seem to not worry enough about over-consuming these. And of course we can consume too much sodium chloride (regular table salt), calcium, vitamin A, sugar, fat, protein, etc., even though these are required for a healthy diet in moderate amounts.
A little bit of knowledge has always been a dangerous thing (as in knowing just a little but not enough), especially regarding health e.g. fads, hearsay, correlations mistakenly read as causations, over-generalisations and over-trusting in marketing spiel that tell customers what they want to hear but fail to deliver on what was implied.
People tend to over-generalise on the risks of additives and preservatives, or assume that ‘natural’ is always better, or some ‘superfood’ is the magic bullet. Regarding one of the current trends as of writing – if you don’t suffer from coeliac disease then a gluten-free diet won’t do you any good. It might not do you any harm depending on what foods you’ve needlessly restricted and if you’ve supplemented your diet properly, but it won’t give you an advantage (although there might be a placebo effect). The castoreum (an exudate from fluffy beavers’ butts) mentioned earlier is often used because manufacturers can claim that it’s natural! See Post No.: 0176 for more about assuming that ‘natural is always best’.
There’s also a matter of consistency when one has certain philosophies towards one’s own health. For instance, a lot of additives are needed to make gluten-free bread if one has chosen to go gluten-free and still wants to eat bread! These additives have again been tested to be safe for consumption but gluten-free bread isn’t generally any healthier unless one genuinely has coeliac disease (and you’ll know if you have that because it’d be totally serious even if you consumed a tiny bit of gluten). It’s also far more expensive. Yet still, lots of people buy gluten-free versions of products assuming that it’s generally healthier. Consumers in the free market evidently frequently behave irrationally.
I personally advocate eating wholemeal breads or artisan breads from a local bakery if possible, but I won’t say people shouldn’t eat ‘white supermarket breads’ – it’s all about balance and moderation. Many bloggers use fear and revulsion to motivate readers, and point out that e.g. bulk-made breads contain additives and ‘all additives are bad’ – but Fluffystealthkitten and I don’t follow or blindly perpetuate the reactions of the herd and instead make our own decisions based on all the information we can get, and then we cross-reference and verify the facts in their appropriate contexts. I know that mould inhibitors, although they may affect flavour, are not toxic and are in fact there to inhibit something that would make the product more-sooner toxic! I occasionally make my own breads by paw and agree that the smells and flavours are far better than the standard supermarket-type loaf, and you can make some bread flavours you won’t find in the shops too. But I wouldn’t judge others and I wouldn’t refuse a ‘white supermarket bread’ sandwich if someone made or bought me one. Keeping healthy is not as stressful or needlessly antisocial as some advocates of healthy living like to portray or make it!
Certain food colourings and artificial additives may have a link with hyperactivity, yet if you consume them and don’t feel hyperactive yourself then you’re logically fine.
Learning a lot, rather than just a little, allows one to refine one’s understanding and to look past the over-generalised fears or fads. It allows us to know that some things that aren’t considered natural or unprocessed (doesn’t grow on trees or underground in its final edible form) are fine for us, some additives and preservatives are on balance better in than out, some types of fat are actually good for us, and so forth.
It’s good that lots of people care so much about their health (because not everybody does) but we’ve got to also be aware that, through just a marketing-led or media-led education in particular, we are at the mercy of marketing hyperbole and headlines that are designed to over-promise or scare, which can impair our health via unnecessary stress and/or needlessly diminish our wealth. The primary objective of large for-profit corporations, in particular, is to sell for their own shareholders’ benefit, hence a potential conflict between maximising profits and disclosing the complete truth. This sometimes means that they’re trying to add stuff that’s cheap to increase their profit margins but isn’t best for our health, but sometimes these things are fine and align with our interests for they need to compete in a competitive market environment.
So let’s not follow the herd but think for ourselves – preservatives help preserve food, so why should they, once you hear/read the word, automatically be presumed to be a bad thing? Who wants to eat harmful mouldy food or wastefully throw food away? The problem is particular preservatives so it’s neither automatically here-nor-there for a foodstuff to claim to contain ‘no preservatives’ on the front of its packaging. Artificial (synthetic) flavourings are often chemically identical to natural flavourings but just synthesised in a lab rather than naturally already found in that way in nature, so once again it’s about particular artificial flavourings rather than a blanket generalisation that we should follow. Synthetic compounds are highly regulated in places like the EU for testing and safety, and it’s not the case that natural compounds are always safe either. Other additives are again regulated for our safety too.
We must not generalise but take things on a case-by-case basis, we must study the science, keep up with the science from reputable journals and news sources, and not merely glance at the shocking headlines and perpetuate the myths. When we learn just a little about something, such knowledge tends to become generalised and we jump to conclusions based on what we know (e.g. assuming that all stars are bigger than planets), but when we effortfully learn a lot more about that subject, our knowledge becomes more refined (e.g. some discovered gas giants are apparently larger in diameter than red dwarves).
Woof! Fluffystealthkitten and I eat sufficiently healthily as a kitten and puppy, without being over-stressed or under-vigilant about it.