tue 31/03/2020

E Numbers: an Edible Adventure, BBC Two | reviews, news & interviews

E Numbers: an Edible Adventure, BBC Two

E Numbers: an Edible Adventure, BBC Two

Are food additives to be feared?

Food writer Stefan Gates seems to have spent his whole life in wilder regions, whether clambering naked up a rain-swept Giant’s Causeway (yes, that‘s the six-year-old Stefan, with his sister Samantha, on the cover of Led Zeppelin’s 1973 album Houses of the Holy), or eating sheep's testicles in Afghanistan, or whatever, in BBC Two's Cooking in the Danger Zone. His latest venture would seem to be his riskiest yet – for Gates immerses himself into the world of the widely feared E-numbered food additives (the E stands for Europe, as in EC-approved, in case, like me, you hadn’t clocked that). It’s a hugely fruitful subject, and hopefully one not with added E120 – the food dye that puts pink into strawberry yoghurt.

Ah, yes, E120 – now there hangs a tale, one which takes Gates to Lanzarote to get up close and personal with the cochineal bugs that are grown on the local cacti before being harvested for their blood – the red colouring in a host of pink and red foodstuffs. And on mainland Spain, Gates visited a lake where flamingos (which are actually born grey) graze on those tiny salt water shrimps that puts the pinky hue in their feathers. The canthaxanthin extracted from these shrimps is the basis of E161g, which is actually fed to flamingos in the zoo to keep them in the pink. It’s also fed to farmed salmon to give them the ruddier complexion of their wild cousins. So many fascinating facts...

It’s all a long way from the early 1800s, when watered-down milk was coloured with chromate of lead to make it look creamy

It’s this business with the farmed salmon that hints at the wider question involving E numbers – and that’s why we humans need food additives in the first place. Gates admits to “keeping an open mind” in the first programme of his three-part series E Numbers: an Edible Adventure, but the gist of the first of several visits to food labs in the first episode had me scratching my head. Gates trucked up at Reading University to watch a green dye being added to processed peas – the processing having turned the peas into a discoloured and thoroughly unappetizing-looking platter. With the added dye they looked healthier, albeit in the rather sickly way of ill Victorians applying rouge to their faces. Were we meant to applaud this cosmetic intervention, or be slightly horrified by the stark evidence that processing food seems to extract its natural goodness?

In a further experiment, vegetable-averse schoolchildren were fed Brussels sprouts flavoured with child-friendly extracts. It was hardly a conclusive test, but at least two of the children said they actually quite liked the blackcurrant-tasting sprouts. But shouldn’t tastes be acquired rather than masked? Few children enjoy sprouts, especially when overcooked, but many will grow up to become adults who do enjoy them.

More amusingly, in an experiment to demonstrate the importance of perception in food and drink, red dye was added to white wine and served to members of a rather upmarket London wine club. After much wittering on about single grape varieties, the liquor was revealed to be plain old Pinot Grigio, and the expressions on the faces of these fledgling oenophiles were an enjoyable mix of sheepish and downright miffed.

Anyway, it’s all a long way from the early 1800s, when watered-down milk was coloured with chromate of lead to make it look creamy, and sweets were coated in red lead. But then, “if you were going to die from TB or cholera by the age of 40 anyway…”, blithely added the food historian demonstrating these toxic delights to Gates.

The textile industry, with its need for synthetic dyes, heralded the dawn of such safer pigments as E110, or Sunset Yellow, the colourant in many energy drinks, and E124, or Ponceau 4R – the red in canned raspberries, apparently, although I didn’t even know you could buy canned raspberries. They sound quite disgusting, but then I’m sure there’s an additive to counter that.

There followed a brief look at the (personally observed) link between some E numbers and hyperactivity in children, including the now infamous “Tartrazine yellow”, before we moved on to the taste enhancers, and an experiment on the supposed adverse effects of monosodium glutamate – or E621. My own experiences of eating MSG-enhanced Chinese food are to feel wired and unable to sleep, rather as if I had ingested a rather more expensive white powder.

For others, it seems, the symptoms of “Chinese restaurant syndrome” include headaches and stomach pains. But is it the glutamate in the MSG that is the problem, or the naturally occurring glutamate in such food as broccoli, tomatoes and Parmesan cheese? Frequent sufferers of MSG “poisoning” were fed a Chinese meal without any monosodium glutamate, and an Italian meal made with ingredients full of naturally occurring glutamates. In their subsequent video diaries it was the Italian meal that induced “Chinese restaurant syndrome”.

So there you go, a thoroughly informative programme presented with perky vigour by Gates, a man with a passing but confusing resemblance to another food journalist, Giles Coren, and also something of a young Nigel Slater about him. But even had he not been able to present for toffee (with added E150d for browning), E Numbers: an Edible Adventure proves that if you pick the right subject matter, the series will talk for itself.

Share this article


yeh i kind of felt the same way. it was 'informative' to an extent but hugely stacked in the favour of the mentioned additives and the industry that flogs them, almost as if they are better than nature. i too felt that there was far too much emphasis on masking and hiding and trickery. if a child likes or dislikes a flavour then so be it. i dont want to trick my child into eating anything with enhancers or colours, that with a little extra research enlightens you further to other symptoms and risks involved in consuming these additives. Stefan failed to mention that msg is a neurotoxin. it 'excites' brain cells so violently that they become over exerted too quickly and perish. he never mentioned the research and reports that have been done that proves this and subsequently puts msg in a, rightly so, more questionable light. if natural glutamates produce symptoms of obesity, flatulence and headaches etc then we certainlt dont need any extra added to our foods whether they make a perfectly nice buttersquash soup taste a wee bit better or not. its still a kind of trickery. tricking your brain into believing whatever bland and over-processed food you have been flogged is tasty and nutritous. this is where the true issue lies. if the food industry has to add artificial flavours or colours or nutrients to our food because the of the way it has been stripped of its natural taste or nutrition from cheap, over-processing methods, then this is a more fundamental problem. given that the placebo effect is astonishingly powerful and we are easily duped by adding a smell or colour to food it is not hard to see how big companies can profit from peddling poor quality goods. this programme felt like an advertisement to me. it is completely out of touch with the current interest and demand for wholesome natural/organic goods that better informed people are seeking more and more. it was trying to entice us back to these over-processed and additive laden foods that id hoped we were leaving behind us. it seems that certain parts of the industry still have a little fight in them yet and have found a nice promoter in the bbc. shame on the bbc. again. if the next episode tries to promote aspartame as a super sweet step up from nature or some such nonsense i might just get so cross that ill write a letter of complaint to the bbc, and the producers and Stefen himself.

Yeah, i like how he goes to great lengths explaining how natural some additives are and then comes to aspartame and gives about 3 seconds explaining what it is. The free glutamate in vegetables is different to the harmful bound glutamate MSG.

I am going to complain to the producers as the 92 symptoms of aspartame were not mentioned or that it was at all dangerous or that it made basically a toxic poison.

Add comment


Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters