There’s a joke doing the rounds on the Web at the moment, in the wake of the UK’s massive product recall following the discovery that Sudan 1 (a banned red food colouring) had found its way into a batch of Worcestershire sauce and thence into an astonishing array of supermarket foods. The joke involves a customer walking into a shop and having the following conversation with the shopkeeper:
Customer: Worcester sauce crisps please
Shopkeeper: Sorry can’t, it’s off the shelves, cancer scare.
Customer: Oh right, how about some Chinese chicken wings?
Shopkeeper: Ah that’s the same , Cancer scare
Customer: Hamburger relish?
Shopkeeper: Cancer scare
Customer: Sausage and mash?
Shopkeeper: Cancer scare
Customer: Cottage pie?
Shopkeeper: Yes, … erm, no wait. Cancer scare.
Customer: So they’re all off the shelves because of a cancer scare?
Customer: *sigh* Just give me a packet of cigarettes then.
Shopkeeper: Certainly. That’ll be £4.50 please.
You kind of find yourself laughing along slightly uneasily – at least I do. I mean, it does seem kind of absurd that there is such a huge fuss about a product which, in massive quantities, might increase your chances of developing cancer – all products even slightly tainted are pulled from supermarket shelves, customers are given a refund and questions are asked about how this poison made it onto British shelves. But cigarettes, proved indisputably to be associated with increased risk of developing a variety of cancers, are freely available to anyone. Go figure.
The whole Sudan 1 debacle also got me thinking about all the stuff that ends up in our food that we are totally unaware of. I mean, would you ever have guessed that cottage pie from leading British supermarket chains contains red food colouring, via Worcestershire sauce, via chilli powder?? I’ll bet not. And even if you are an inveterate reader of labels, chances are all you would have seen on the ingredient list was “Worcestershire sauce”. I have recently started reading labels more and more meticulously and it amazes me how few people seem to do this. And if they do, chances are they are looking at the fat or sugar content. Sure, take the diet orange squash, it’s “sugar free” – but have you noticed that it contains three times as many chemicals and E-numbers as its non-diet conterpart? So even when people think they are making healthy choices, they may still be loading their systems with artificial chemicals that were never meant for human consumption. Look around you at older folk in the community – chances are many of them grew up eating what today would be considered an unhealthy diet: red meat, animal fats, sugar and salt, and no government programmes reminding them to get their five portions of fruit and veg per day. But a remarkable number of them are still around. On the other hand, I currently have not one but two friends who are both undergoing chemotherapy for breast and cervical cancer respectively, plus in the past three years another friend has had testicular cancer and yet another, a brain tumour. All of them were under the age of 35. When your contemporaries start developing cancer in their 30s, this really makes you wonder what we are doing to our bodies to make them turn on us at such a young age. I know I’m wondering.
We could debate the reasons for days. Obviously there are environmental, lifestyle and genetic factors involved. But one also can’t deny that we are living in a world loaded with more potential carcinogenics than ever before. We are surrounded every day by microwaves, computer monitors, mobile telephones and the like, all of which emit electromagnetic fields. Plus we are eating food that is further and further removed from its basic raw ingredients and loaded with artificial flavours, colours, trans-fatty acids, preservatives, you name it. Surely we can’t expect this to have no effect on our health?? Now I don’t want to turn back the clock or join an Amish community, but I do feel I can try to steer clear of artificial gunk in my food as much as possible. So with this in mind, I did a bit of reading on the topic of food additives – the E-numbers that you find on most prepared foods. Although one’s natural reaction is that all additives are bad, this isn’t necessarily so – some are beneficial additives such as extra vitamins and minerals, some are natural substances that have been assigned an E-number but are not harmful. But while some additives are innocuous, others are man-made chemical-compounds and range from the potentially allergy-provoking to the potentially dangerous.
For those of you who are interested, here is a list of good links explaining which E-numbers correspond to which substances, which E-numbers are banned, which are considered dangerous, and which are in fact natural substances.
- Michael at Cooking for Engineers recently posted an article on food additives, including a list of additives – listed by name, not E-number – and explaining what each is meant to do.
- The Feingold program (a program designed to test whether certain foods or food additives are triggering particular symptoms such as hyperactivity) has compiled an interesting list of E-numbers (specifically food colorants), and distinguishes between additives to avoid and harmless additives.
- The UK Food Guide has posted a very comprehensive list of E-numbers (divided into colours, preservatives, anti-oxidants, sweeteners, emulsifiers/stabilisers/thickeners/gelling agents) with a detailed write-up on each additive.
- And finally, a British site primarily about lactose intolerance also has a comprehensive list of E-numbers , what additive they refer to and includes information on which countries have banned the use of which additives.
Armed with one or more of these lists, you should be in a much better position to interpret the gobbledygook on some food labels, and spot the chemicals hidden under innocuous-sounding E-numbers.
And if any of you should feel so inclined, please do visit the Cancer Research site – there are a number of ways to donate time or money. It’s a tremendously worthy cause which is often forgotten these days or overshadowed by the disasters which dominate the news on a daily basis.