Magazine

The day I ate as many E numbers as possible

  • 25 August 2010
  • From the section Magazine
Multi-coloured sweets

Food labels such as "natural" and "pure" are confusing shoppers, according to a survey. But even more misunderstood are the E numbers that populate ingredient lists, says Stefan Gates, who set out to see if additives are as bad as is often assumed.

Why would anyone do something as irresponsible as try to overload on sweeteners, flavourings, emulsifiers and preservatives, when food additives are a byword for culinary evil?

In Europe, these are given E numbers; in the United States and elsewhere, the full name is increasingly listed on food labels.

Yet how many consumers would believe that such additives may actually be good for us? The boom in organic and natural foods in recent years betrays our trust in nature over science. Yet a survey by Which? magazine has found terms such as "natural", "fresh", "pure" and "real", which readily appear on the front of food packaging, are confusing consumers because they are largely unregulated.

Conversely, it is the additives tucked way in the small print of a product's ingredients list that are heavily regulated. And when you look at clinical rather than anecdotal evidence, and speak to clinical dieticians, it appears these are actually good for us - and many seem to be very good for us indeed.

This flies in the face of popular perception, so I decided to use myself as a nutritional and medical guinea pig. A lot of fine and expensive foods are made using Es as preservatives, including the best wines (E220 - sulphur dioxide) and the finest hams (E252 - potassium nitrate).

But posh nosh isn't synonymous with additives in the way convenience food is.

So I stocked up on fizzy drinks, ready meals, sweets, frozen pizzas, crisps, battered onion rings, hot dogs (in bread rolls, ready to zap), packet soups and instant noodles for my e-binge. I also laid in a fair amount of salami and ham, partly because of the preservatives E250 and E252, and partly because if I'm poisoning myself, I might as well eat something I love.

The sweets contained a rainbow of colours, the pizzas a hodgepodge of emulsifiers, stabilisers and preservatives, and the crisps boasted a gallimaufry of flavour enhancers. And the instant soup? A melange of pretty much every E number under the sun.

Are these actually bad for you? Words like "preservative", "emulsifier" and "stabiliser" sound bizarre and scary for something you put in your mouth. But lemon juice contains citric acid, a natural antioxidant preservative also known as E330. The emulsifer lecithin (E322) is in egg yolks. And stabilisers include E460, or cellulose, which comes straight from plants.

And the E numbered nitrate and nitrite preservatives in bacon, ham and sausages, linked to bowel cancer by the World Cancer Research Fund? Removing these would increase the risk of food poisoning caused by botulism, a virulent pathogen all but eradicated from our food, not least because a natural version - saltpetre - has been used for centuries.

Jelly to start the day

Then started the eating of the Es. My kids kindly made me some very colourful jellies for breakfast, then poured me a vast bucket of cereals, which contained vitamins such as E101 (vitamin B2) and E170 (calcium carbonate), a nutritional calcium supplement.

I washed this down with a yoghurt drink containing E410 - locust bean gum, added for dietary fibre - and snacked on a steady intake of Wotsits and Monster Munch - both shaped corn snacks - Pringles and prawn cocktail crisps.

By 10am I'd eaten enough for a whole day and felt bilious and shameful - but undeterred. At lunch I downed several frozen pizzas, then veered dangerously from Pot Noodle to UHT squirty cream. I then ate a few chocolate bars.

In the evening I was reduced to liquidising food in a blender to get it down. I necked chicken poppets mixed with battered onion rings, and dessert was a smoothie of cheesecake, chocolate milkshake and crisps - a surprising tasty combo.

By the end of the day I felt like a balloon of slurry on the verge of bursting. I'd eaten 50 different E numbers, but have I eaten enough to poison myself?

Image caption MSG (E621) is demonised, but those sensitive to it may also react to glutamate in broccoli...

No, said my GP, Dr Jonty Heaversedge, who explained that the basic toxicology principle for safe consumption was a 100-fold safety margin.

Scientists work out how much of any E number an animal can eat on a daily basis before having any ill effects, divide that by 10 (in case humans are more sensitive than animals) and then divide by 10 again, just to be safe.

Many Es are so safe there is no acceptable daily intake (ADI) level - this is the case for 32 of my 50 Es. Others have strict ADIs, although these limits aren't indicated on food packaging. Of E202, the preservative potassium sorbate, for instance, you can eat up to 25mg for each kg of your body weight.

Despite my greed, I only reached 50% of my ADI on two out of all the Es I have eaten - annatto, or E160b, a natural yellow dye used in foods such as cheesy crisps, fish fingers and pastry, and E250, sodium nitrite, a cured meat preservative. On the latter, I was way over - up to 704% of the acceptable daily intake if all the ham, bacon and salami I'd eaten contained the maximum possible levels.

So, had I overdosed? Yes, but not on E numbers.

Image caption ... or in Parmesan and cheddar cheeses

Dr Heaversedge wasn't worried about my E consumption, not even sodium nitrite (remember that 100-fold safety margin). What he was horrified by was the fact I'd eaten 418% of my recommended daily allowance of fat, 500% of my salt RDA and 218% of my sugar RDA. So the biggest nutritional culprits in my binge came in purely organic form and had no E numbers.

Our fear of additives can be dangerous - it belies the much bigger nutritional implications of unbalanced diets, food poisoning, physical inactivity and dietary disorders. You shouldn't eat too many E numbers, but then you shouldn't eat too much of anything - remember, there's cyanide in apples, but they're still good for you.

Around the BBC

Related Internet links

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites