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E-numbers: Crushed lice in fruit yoghurt

Adventurous, if not unhealthy, describes the many additives that are found today in E-numbers often food stuffs. For consumers obscure E-numbers often add to the confusion. A little visit to the scene of the crime at the supermarket throws up astonishment and shaking heads.



A fresh food snack doesn’t need any taste enhancer or preservative. The consumer decides...
Picture by T. Micke

It was really quite fun, even if there is actually a serious background: a paperchase in one of Vienna's supermarkets. The task: looking on the list of additives of various edible products for the ominous label E120. E120 is neither poisonous nor unhealthy. At the most it’s a little disgusting. Behind the code number a “natural” colouring is hiding, which can be obtained from dried and crushed female scarlet scale insects. These little animals live on Mexican cacti and were already used as colourings by the Aztecs. If you like, an old “house recipe” which can be but once reproached for being a harmless additive for food: the consumer would probably like to have known beforehand that he was allowing a hint of scale insects dissolve on his tongue.

There, where according to rumours we should have found them, there were no lice. Namely in ketchup or coloured alcoholic drinks like Campari (which is artificially turned red with Azurobin E122). We struck it lucky in the candy aisle: scale insects for red chocolate chips; the artificially produced, cheaper version of the same colouring (E124) in one or another red fruit gum. In the meat section we found scale-insect-red meatloaf and salami. And in the milk aisle Austrian strawberry buttermilk with the scale-insect colouring E120.

Does it have to be like this? The question answered itself straight away with a label in the next aisle, where a strawberry yoghurt was coloured using beetroot (E162). Although it is a little rare, even highly sensitive consumers experience no death reflexes.

Professor Dr. Emmerich Berghofer, food scientist at the Vienna University for Earth culture: "Strawberries alone never produce enough colouring to colour a yoghurt product red. Many consumers reach automatically for strawberry-coloured products, if they have the choice. This is why food producers use such additional colourings. The same thing happens for taste: people expect a product to taste fresh and fruity even after several days. And fulfilling this (excessive) wish only works by adding stable flavourings, which are often developed specifically for the food."

Approved by the EU as food additives to "improve" the taste, perishability, consistency and appearance of a product, around 300 products are assigned with an E-number. Many of these are quite harmless and can be obtained naturally, like paprika extract (E162c), malic acid (E296), pectin (E440), salt (E509), beeswax (E901) and oxygen (E948). Others are suspected of triggering allergic reactions, hardening of arteries, bone atrophy or even cancer, if they are taken in large doses. "Suspected", because long term tests are missing for most of these substances – and that concerns even natural (when used not as they were intended) substances like rosmary extract as an antioxidant.

Taste from the laboratory: strawberry flavouring is obtained from  fermented wood shavings
Picture by T. Micke

Prof. Berghofer: "All food additives that can be found on the market are considered to be quite safe. The problem is this: there are more and more of them because under price pressure the food industry wants to save costs of expensive, natural additives. And that clearly increases the risk of side effects."

Werner Lampert, from Vorarlberg, inventor of the well known organic mark "Ja! Natürlich": "A study in the region of Salzburg has recently shown that almost 20 percent of the population suffers from allergies, caused in any case by other environmental poisons, which accompany us today. But I am convinced that we have all the artificial food additives to thank, whose effects with other substances that we consume in food are not tested at all."

Back in the supermarket: already, a light yoghurt (with only 45 kilocalories per 100 grams) "sways" us, but it contains four different E-sweeteners. Is one not enough?

The fact that in normal pork or veal sausage (and many other types of sausage product) there are taste enhancers alongside stabilisers, preservatives and antioxidants is no longer anything special. But the fact that in the meat section we can find a simple pork rib in which the stabiliser E452, the antioxidant E301 and the preservative E250? Aren't smoking and salting meat old well accepted conserving techniques after all? After the smoked pork sausage with rum flavouring (evidently artificial, otherwise the producer would surely have added natural), I wanted to recover with some local bacon – and I suffer my first shock of the day: a shrink-wrapped, beautiful, smoked piece of bacon produced in Austria, which one would assume – simply salted and smoked – is bursting with taste, contains the flavour enhancer E621! How does this get into a solid piece of meat? And why does bacon from the South Tyrol without cheat improvements appear right next to it for sale at the same price?

In response the state tested food chemist Bernd Leitenberger says: "Glutamic acid salts are hiding behind the label E621. This enhances meat flavouring and produces the typical taste of pork sausage. I cannot explain what they are doing in smoky bacon, but in some industrially prepared products you really get the impression that the responsible food technologists are not in control of their job: certain additives are introduced without reason, sometimes two or three times."

Organic food expert Werner Lampert: "I suspect that the bacon has not been smoked for long enough, so that it can be produced at a faster rate. So that it still tastes good, E621 is added." Just to clear up any wrong impressions: E621 is also regarded as quite safe. But is it necessary?

Prof. Berghofer: "Actually we do not need all of these additives. We have just become too lazy to cook every day ourselves in order to freshly digest the bought additives. We expect our food today to last longer and not to fall to pieces in the meantime, then taste just as good as they day it was bought and to be as cheap as possible." That does not work. Not without the E-substances or other "invisible" aids like an anti-rotting gene smuggled into a tomato's genetic makeup. Or the influential, germicidal gamma radiation of strawberries.

One more tip for scale lice: Next time you find yourself in the milk aisle, consider whether it is a natural yoghurt that they are improving with "real" strawberry jam.


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© A report by Tobias Micke (29-04-07) – Contact