Are E numbers really bad for you?
In fact the series turned out to be, in many ways, a celebration of E numbers. Despite what you might think, when you research them in detail you find that most E numbers are good for you. There, I've said it. I'm sorry if this upsets or offends, and I know that it goes against the grain for a food writer to say something so counter-intuitive (heaven knows, I love artisan foods, conscientious producers and healthy meals cooked using fresh ingredients). But before you sharpen your knives and wield your tenderising mallet in my general direction, I'd like to give you a bit of detail.
Well, let's start with a short explanation of what E numbers are. E stands for Europe, and the E number code relates to a set of EU rules about which foods can contain them and how much you should be able to consume in a day. For instance E284 boric acid can only be used in caviar, and E252 potassium nitrate (used in bacon and salami) has an acceptable level of daily intake (ADI) of 0-3.7% mg/Kg body weight. Many E numbers are very familiar and important to good food and nutrition: for instance E300 is vitamin C, E101 is vitamin B2, E948 is oxygen and E160c is paprika.
The rules were developed to regulate additives (rather than encourage their use), so that dangerous substances like toxic lead tetroxide could be banned from use in children's sweets, for instance. In the past, food adulteration was a deadly problem.
But what about the bad E numbers? E621 monosodium glutamate is anecdotally blamed for an extraordinary range of symptoms, but in fact if you grate parmesan on your pasta you are likely to be adding more glutamate to your meal than you'd ever find in an MSG-laden ready meal. There's a group of food colours called the 'Southampton Six' that have a small but proven association with hyperactivity in children, and which you might want to avoid. Sulphur dioxide (E220) can exacerbate asthma, although without it wine usually tastes foul and in any case it's been used in pretty much every bottle of wine produced since Roman times.
But the leading causes of food allergies and intolerances are entirely natural: milk, wheat, eggs, nuts, fish, soya, celery... And of course every single food or drink on the planet, whether it contains E numbers or not, is toxic at some level - apples contain cyanide, people have died from water intoxication, cabbage contains goitrogens, potatoes contain toxic solanine and broccoli contains carcinogens. But, as with E numbers, the amounts of these toxic substances are minute, and the benefits of consuming these foods and drinks invariably far outweigh the risks. The difference with E numbers is that they have been extensively tested and analysed to ascertain safe levels.
The reality is that all foods are a combination of chemicals, whether added by man or not, and just because a food is organic doesn't necessarily make it better for you. The worst nutritional problems are caused by substances that come in purely organic form: salt, fat and sugar, none of which are E numbers.
The argument in favour of Es is that they make food healthier, safer, cheaper, better tasting and more attractive. Of course, many horrible and unhealthy foods also contain E numbers, but invariably it's not the Es that make them unhealthy - it's the salt, fat and sugar.
I think that we shouldn't be afraid of food: we should understand it. But I also know that there are many angles to this issue, not least that many believe the concept of cheap food is gruesome in itself. I'm not so sure - the people who spend most of their income on food are usually already nutritionally vulnerable: the poor, the sick and the old, who may well lack the knowledge or ability to cook fresh food. These are the people who are most dependent on cheap food - not the middle classes, who enjoy fine wines (with E220), fine hams (with E252) and caviar (with E284).
Do you have a different view of E numbers? Do you have an allergy or intolerance to either E numbers or natural foods? Let us know what do you think.
Stefan Gates is the presenter of E Numbers: An Edible Adventure. Read about the day he ate as many E numbers as possible.