Taking a fresh look at the science of food

Artificial additives are still used widely, but public opinion is heading nature's way
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Indy Lifestyle Online

Craig Sams is in no doubt that the quality of what we eat is improving. Things are getting better, says the ex-hippy founder of macrobiotic foods in Britain and now chairman of the Soil Association. "There is an emerging market place democracy that is forcing artificial additives out of our foods."

Craig Sams is in no doubt that the quality of what we eat is improving. Things are getting better, says the ex-hippy founder of macrobiotic foods in Britain and now chairman of the Soil Association. "There is an emerging market place democracy that is forcing artificial additives out of our foods."

The revolution, he says, is being driven by the organic food movement and the growth of alternative medicines. People no longer trust the food industry; they want natural food. "The advice they trust tells them that they should eat less sugar and avoid things like hydrogenated fats. They have seen the TV programmes on how colourings, like tartrazine, make their children hyperactive."

And at the end of the day, he says, "Tesco and Sainsbury's have no vested interest in junk food. In fact, now they have little potential to further expand their markets, the supermarkets want to go for quality. They want people to spend more on food. They are becoming a force for good."

It's an unexpected message from a man who has fought the mainstream food industry for 40 years -- ever since he set up a macrobiotic restaurant in north-west London where the likes of Marc Bolan, John Lennon and Yoko Ono sat cross-legged on the floor to eat brown rice and vegetables.

But some food manufacturers are fighting the consumer tide. They try to keep information about the additives they are using off their product labels by using a loophole that allows them to identify "compound ingredients". Clever manufacturers, says Sams, buy in ready-made "compound ingredients" that can be declared simply as Worcester sauce or raspberry jam or just "natural flavouring".

"Worcester sauce has become a dustbin for ingredients that manufacturers don't want to declare," Sams says. It last hit the news for disguising the presence of the industrial Sudan 1 dye. The real scandal of the Sudan 1 affair, he says, was that nobody was actually under any obligation to declare this ingredient. The industrial dye shouldn't have been there, of course, but actually no crime was committed by failing to declare it.

Additives are a seemingly essential part of the tool-kit of manufacturers of processed foods. There are antioxidants and bleaching agents, emulsifiers and thickeners, sweeteners and colouring agents. They extend shelf-life, boost flavour, make the food look good and prevent spoilage - often, as critics point out, in effect compensating for the use of poor ingredients and the surreptitious addition of cheap bulking agents like water and air.

On the packet. the amounts of additives usually look tiny. But they add up. The Food Commission reckons we eat four kilograms of additives a year - "Your child may have eaten its own weight in additives by the time he or she is an adult," it says.

The best thing that happened to the campaign against additives was the introduction in 1978 of the European Union's E-numbers to label additives. It began as a device for manufacturers to avoid having to list long chemical names, and to reassure customers that the additives were tested and approved.

But customers saw it differently. All E-numbers became "bad". And not without reason. Many colourings are linked to hyperactivity in children, many antioxidants can cause cancer at high doses in animals. Others are disrupters of human hormones, trigger allergies and so on.

Many food regulator scientists still bemoan the public's antipathy to additives. Elizabeth Attridge, who was in charge of food safety in Whitehall in the 1980s, told the Government inquiry into BSE in 1999 how civil servants feared that "food safety was at risk" because manufacturers were reducing the amount of preservatives in their products and the supermarkets didn't possess enough refrigerator space to keep the food fresh.

Food additives are no new thing, of course. Adding sawdust to bread and brick dust to cocoa are ancient dodges. But regulators such as the Government's Food Standards Agency, require strong scientific evidence before they feel able to take on the food industry and ban additives. Slowly that evidence is emerging.

A recent study by Southampton University fed 300 three-year-olds alternate diets with and without artificial food colourings. Parents did not know which foods their children were eating, but consistently reported they became less hyperactive when the colourings were removed.

The Soil Association is concerned about a number of additives. One is phosphoric acid in fizzy drinks, which the human body can only deal with by first fixing it with calcium taken from bones. One study suggests teenage girls drinking a lot of cola may be more likely to suffer bone fractures.

Another target is hydrogenated fats (also known as trans fats). These are vegetable oils made near-solid by bubbling hydrogen through them. They stop biscuits bulked out with water from crumbling in the packet and takeaway chips tasting greasy. But they may be more dangerous for heart disease than even the better-known saturated fats. Both are banned under organic standards.

The Food Standards Agency says hydrogenated fats "are harmful and have no known nutritional benefits". But while some manufacturers are responding to concerns by cutting down on them, the regulator has refused to ban them.

Pesticides also trouble those who want to eat healthily. Many of the more dangerous pesticides have been withdrawn from use in Europe in recent years, including DDT and many organophosphates. Lindane was banned in 2002. Some retailers, such as the Co-op and Marks & Spencer, ban a range of the more toxic pesticides from being sprayed on fruit and veg that they buy.

In theory, pesticides should disappear before they reach our food. But nearly half of all fruit and vegetables tested in Britain in 1999 contained detectable pesticide residues. In 2003, half of bread samples contained chlormequat, and one in 50 potatoes contained detectable amounts of the nerve poison aldicarb. The only sure way of keeping chemicals out of our food, it seems, is to buy organic, where artificial chemical pesticides and over 90 per cent of additives used in the food industry are banned.

Sams says that even non-organic shoppers have come a long way. The customer now has the whip hand. Every time we shop, we vote for the products we want. If we don't buy them, the stores won't stock them. And we are winning. Simple as that. The hippy macrobiotic bean man and his mission have come a long way.

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