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