14/02/2013E-Numbers by Stefan Gates
There is an astonishing amount of myth and misunderstanding around E-numbers. They are universally billed as the bad guys of food, and yet they play a critical role in food safety. In this book and the accompanying TV series, Stefan Gates investigates the real truth about E-numbers.
If you fill your grocery cart based on what you have read in the Daily Mail or been told on the news, you'd have a hard job finding things to put in that don't scare you to death. Ok so maybe you might be able to slip a few vegetables in, as long as you can overlook that they might have been sprayed with something unpleasant or that they might have e-coli if you don't cook them til they steam.... And foods containing E-numbers are right there on the hit list. This book in no way seeks to convince you to eat lots of processed junk. Quite the contrary, Stefan Gates (parents know him from CBBC's Gastronuts but you might also know him from the fascinating travel food show Cooking In The Danger Zone)is very much in favour of cooking real food which keeps us healthy. It's just that he also believes that food should be a source of pleasure and adventure and that the culture of fear around food does none of us any good. Hence his investigation into E-numbers to find out whether or not our fear of them has foundation.
I particularly liked this explanation for his project from the introduction to the book:
"I love food, but I hate bullshit. [...] By bullshit, I mean the cliches, mantras, cherry-picked research, unquestioned nutritional assumptions and half truths spread without a second thought by food writers, TV chefs, reporters and media nutritionists. The most damaging of these are the widely held beliefs that all E-numbers are bad for you, that preservatives are unnecessary and that it's a conspiracy of faceless food manufacturers, scientists and the government - rather than ourselves - who are to blame for bad nutrition and food poisoning. The food industry does indeed cause some crippling environmental, social and medical problems (more about these later), but blaming E-numbers for them is a lazy shortcut that skips over real issues of personal accountability for health."
Food substances are only given an E-number when the EU has tested them and deemed them safe for human consumption, for a specific purpose, and usually up to a specified maximum safe limit. A few of them are indeed what we imagine - artificially created chemicals, invented in a lab, which flavour, preserve or colour foods and may or may not be used to replace more wholesome or expensive ingredients or disguise the poor quality of food. However, others are completely naturally occurring substances which are present in home cooked food (like riboflavin E101 naturally present in wheat), or even in home grown raw foods (like Vitamin C E300 naturally present in many fruits and vegetables). Still another group are substances which are actually created by our own bodies (like human fat - glycerol E422 or hair which comprises 14%L-cysteine E920). Not only that, but the air we breathe is full of E-numbers (oxygen is E948 and nitrogen is E941 for example).
In this book, Stefan follows several ingredients back through the manufacturing chain to find out where they come from, eats a diet packed with E-numbers and tries to exceed the limits allowed by the EU to see if it affects his health. He also covers the intolerances and adverse reactions associated with that group of E-numbers which are often cited as the real bad guys of food, including the Southampton Six Colours, Aspartame and MSG . He charts how food safety has developed over the centuries and why regulations like the EU numbering scheme were necessary to save human life. His investigations take up the first third of the book (and were filmed for the BBC show of the same name), and go some way to pointing out the misunderstandings which easily arise when people are frightened by media rhetoric. A good example is Gillian McKeith's plea for us to avoid E162 Beetroot Red in her book "You Are What You Eat", followed by her advice four sentences later to instead use "red pigments obtained from beets". E162 Beetroot Red is a red pigment obtained from beets.
The remainder of the book is a really useful list of all 391 E-numbers, explaining what each one is, what it is used for and whether we should be scared of it. With a handy index at the back this makes the book in to a useful reference guide if you want to know how to read your labels more effectively.
Even as a fairly food-educated reader, I found a lot of the information in this book really enlightening. It certainly had the desired effect of providing full and frank information to enable me to make informed buying choices, but at the same time, giving me confidence that eating some foods with E-numbers isn't likely to kill me. Critically, Stefan points out that the presence of E-numbers in a food is not, by itself, a guide to the healthiness of its ingredients, but that some of the foods which we think of as "bad for us and full of E-numbers" are actually bad for us because of their other ingredients as much or more so than the E-numbers themselves. E-numbers are indeed sometimes used as a lazy shortcut by manufacturers to make cheap and nutritionally bankrupt foods more palatable. But those foods are just as likely to be bad for us because of their levels of salt, hydrogenated fats, caffeine, sugar, cattle growth hormones or other items, none of which carry an E-number. Some foods containing E numbers will be very wholesome, and many foods containing damaging ingredients may not include E-numbers at all, so reading the label has to be a more sophisticated process than just excluding Es.
This book in no way seeks to convince you to eat lots of processed junk. Quite the contrary, Stefan Gates (parents know him from CBBC's Gastronuts but you might also know him from the fascinating travel food show Cooking In The Danger Zone)is very much in favour of cooking real food which keeps us healthy. It's just that he also believes that food should be a source of pleasure and adventure and that the culture of fear around food does none of us any good. Hence his investigation into E-numbers to find out whether or not our fear of them has foundation.
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