E by Gum

According to Southampton’s quality local newspaper (little bit of irony there), a survey by Southampton University into the effects of various E-numbered food additives has been rejected by the European Union as inconclusive.

Amidst all the arm-waving by the organic food brigade, it’s worth remembering that the original intention of the E-numbering system was that food additives would be tested for safety, and only those found to be safe (when used as intended by the supplier) would be given E-numbers. Of course newer research and improvements in testing technology have shown that some ingredients aren’t as safe as was originally thought, but it’s still important to remember that the function of the scheme remains the approval of proven-safe ingredients, rather than the opposite.

In fact, food ingredients essential to life – or at least harmless – have E-numbers. Some examples are -

  • E101 – vitamin B2 when used as a food colouring
  • E260 – vinegar when used as a mould inhibitor
  • E300 – vitamin C when used as an acidity regulator
  • E500 – sodium bicarb when used as a raising agent

The organic food movement is all very well for those that want it – but we have to remember that the planet doesn’t have enough production capacity to feed the whole population organically, so it’s a luxury we genuinely can’t all afford. And of course, unless we’re all going to go back to buying fresh food every couple of days – and eating nothing we can’t buy fresh – food is going to have to contain some preservative, even if it’s only common salt (E470a).

Unrestrained technology is not the way forward, but nor is a return to the dark ages. What’s needed is better technology applied with a light hand, and better information about what that technology means.

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