Something fishy: could this spell the end of E numbers?

Bird's Eye says it is removing additives from all its foods. But consumers still have cause to be wary of what the industry is offering them, reports Cahal Milmo
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Indy Lifestyle Online

A shopper glides past a row of chiller cabinets filled with swimming sea bass. On the vegetable aisle, consumers are digging up their potatoes and picking their own greens. Chickens roam on the drinks aisle and cows chew cud next to the deli counter.

A shopper glides past a row of chiller cabinets filled with swimming sea bass. On the vegetable aisle, consumers are digging up their potatoes and picking their own greens. Chickens roam on the drinks aisle and cows chew cud next to the deli counter.

This surreal image is how Britain's biggest frozen food brand announced yesterday it would like consumers to think of its products: the next best thing to harvesting the weekly groceries direct from mother nature.

Birds Eye, which last year sold £700m of frozen produce from Norfolk peas to Brazilian chicken goujons, will spend £25m in the coming weeks to publicise a move which will help the company side-step growing concern about one of the key sets of ingredients in Britain's £12bn addiction to pre-packaged and processed foods.

The company, part of the Anglo-Dutch consumer goods conglomerate Unilever, which last year made profits of £2.8bn, has given a guarantee that all 130 of its products are now free from artificial colourings, flavourings, preservatives and, therefore, nearly all E numbers.

With recent studies linking some additives to childhood tantrums and work being conducted to see if they slow brain development, E numbers are increasingly taking centre stage alongside obesity and heart disease as the villains in the debate about diet.

Vyvyan Howard, a senior lecturer in toxicology at the University of Liverpool, who is overseeing a study on the effects of E numbers on neurones, the cells which carry brain impulses, said: "My own view is that I wouldn't touch them. On a precautionary basis we should remove them from our food.

"Almost all E-number additives have no nutritional value. They have been tested one at a time but they certainly haven't been tested in combination, as they appear in foodstuffs. We simply don't know what their long-term effects are."

Ironically, given their status as the bane of nutritionists, the concept of the E number was introduced under European law to improve consumer safety. A European Community directive in 1983 required food manufacturers to harmonise the long list of additives used across the continent - from vitamin C to such delights as 3-methoxybenzaldehyde - with a three-digit code prefixed by an E. But as shoppers began to equate a long-list of Es with an unhealthy product, producers have starting listing additives by name or abandoning them altogether.

The Birds Eye campaign, which carries the slogan: "We don't play with your food", markets the company as one of the first large-scale producers in Europe to guarantee produce free of chemical additives.

The Birds Eye beefburger, first introduced by the firm in 1960, no longer contains E621 and E223, which is otherwise known as the flavour enhancer monosodium glutamate and the preservative, sodium metabisulphate. Instead, the two chemical additives have been replaced by the altogether more wholesome-sounding rosemary extract.

Jerry Wright, Birds Eye's marketing director, said: "We are signalling some fundamental changes in our approach to every single product in our range. We are responding to the desires of consumers. There is a feeling that they would rather be buying products that contain things that they recognise.

"Our principle has been that you shouldn't find anything on the list of ingredients on the side of our packets that you would not find in your cupboards at home."

The company has spent £4m on overhauling its range and says that it has dropped about 100 ingredients ranging from all artificial antioxidants and flavourings to the use of modified starches, the thickening agents used by manufacturers to bulk up and hold together processed foods from low-fat yoghurts to chicken sandwiches.

Instead of using preservatives, in-house nutritionists point to the naturally preserving effects of keeping food at -25C, thereby maintaining its nutritional value without having to pump it full of highly-specialised chemicals.

To add to its nutritional make-over, Birds Eye says its revised ingredient list includes a 16 per cent reduction in salt levels and nearly five-fold decrease in the saturated fat content of the oil used to prepare products such as its famous fish fingers.

So, welcome to the green and pleasant land of wholesome fruit and vegetables, steamed salmon, low-fat cod and 100 per cent British beef that Unilever will seek to portray with one of the year's largest food advertising campaigns on television, radio and on billboards. The only problem is that beyond Birds Eye's surreal supermarket, Britain is fighting a losing battle against an epidemic of diet and additive-related conditions ranging from hyperactivity to heart disease. Two thirds of Britons are now classified as overweight, with a quarter of men and a fifth of women being classified as clinically obese.

Britons last year spent about £4.8bn on frozen food, part of a trend which makes the UK the largest market in Europe for pre-prepared or processed meals, worth some £12bn.

The market is matched by the trade in chemicals that allow manufacturers to change the shade, texture, consistency, shelf life and therefore profitability of such food. Last year, the world food additives industry was worth $19.8bn (£11.1bn), of which more than £600,000 was spent on colourings.

In their efforts to replicate the taste of "real" food, scientists can use up to 4,500 flavouring compounds to synthesise the sensation of eating something without having to go to the trouble of including a molecule of the original product. There 300 types of manufactured strawberry flavouring alone.

Dr Howard, whose department will publish its research on E numbers this September, said: "The basic reason for using additives is economic - it is to disguise otherwise poor ingredients."

Researchers last month revealed the first evidence that artificial colourings and preservatives in food and drink increase hyperactivity in pre-school children. A study of 277 children aged between three and four carried out by doctors at the University of Southampton found that high levels of hyperactivity were halved when additives were removed from their diet.

They alternated the children between a placebo drink containing natural fruit juice and a drink which tasted the same but contained E numbers such as the preservative sodium benzoate, and the colouring tartrazine, which has long been suspected of causing temper-tantrums in vulnerable children. When the parents were asked how they rated their child's level of hyperactivity, all said their offspring were calmer when given the drink without additives. The proportion showing extreme hyperactivity fell from 15 per cent to 6 per cent.

Professor John Warner, from the department of child health at Southampton University, who led the study, said: "These findings suggest that significant changes in children's hyperactive behaviour could be produced by the removal of artificial colourings and sodium benzoate from their diet."

Such is the level of concern about the study that the Food Standards Agency, the government body in charge of food quality, has agreed to fund a larger follow-up study over three years.

The food industry points out that E number phobia can be taken to extremes. Some additives, such as E162, E300, E101 and E601, respectively represent nothing more menacing than beetroot juice, vitamin C, vitamin B2 and carotene.

A spokeswoman for the Food and Drink Federation said: "Each additive is tested and licensed by the European Union. A manufacturer has to justify the use of each additive in each product. They are safe."

But as the food industry increases its efforts to meet government demands to reduce the amount of salt and fat in processed products, executives will be nervous of incurring multi-billion dollar law suits linked to food.

James Hill, the chairman of Birds Eye, said of the company's review of its ingredients: "There were things the names of which would give cause for concern." Aware of the potential liability of his statement, the company later said that this had been a reference to a consumer's instinctive concern when reading a long additive name on an ingredients label.

Mr Wright said: "Our approach is not a response to the wider debate about additives. It is a response to our customers, rather than concern about regulatory or legal issues."

Nutritionists nonetheless detect a sea-change in the attitudes of the major players in Britain's food industry, as the public becomes more pro-active in persuading manufacturers to make their produce healthier.

Amanda Wyness, a dietician for the British Dietetic Association, said: "I do think food companies are becoming aware of the threat of litigation and it is encouraging them in the direction of making sure they are quite open about what they put into their products."

Others, however, argue that the food industry will only change its attitude towards additives, fats and sugars when it is forced to do by legislation rather than the commercial benefits of overhauling its ingredient list.

One executive for a company which specialises in additive-free products, who asked not be named, said: "For every portion of steamed vegetables on the shelves, there are 15 loaded with horrors from stabilisers to ingredients that strip the zinc out of your body.

"Unless you force the issue by laying down minimal standards, at least for children's food, then we'll be eating this muck for decades to come."

UNSAVOURY TRUTHS BEHIND THE LABELS

By Oliver Duff

A fresh green salad with chicken followed by a low-fat fruit yoghurt may sound a fine example of healthy eating but behind the contents labels lurk less savoury truths.

That "fresh" bag of salad, thanks to Modified Atmosphere Packaging (which employs reduced oxygen levels to slow visible deterioration), may include lettuce leaves up to one month old. Research published in the British Journal of Nutrition last year showed that MAP can destroy many of the nutrients in salad, such as vitamins C and E, and polyphenols, useful in combating ageing and cancer. Each leaf will most likely have been rinsed in a chlorine bath 20 times more concentrated than your local swimming pool.

There is no guarantee, either, that your chicken will be quite what you think. Food Standards Agency checks are improving - they now employ DNA testing - but the adulteration of poultry is considered a fast-escalating problem by trading standards inspectors. An investigation on BBC's Panorama last year found that tens of thousands of tons of chicken had been pumped full of water, chemicals, and protein from beef and pork.

In a separate survey, the FSA found that chicken breasts sold to the catering industry sometimes consisted only half of chicken; the remainder was water and hydrolysed protein.

As for the "fruit" yoghurt, well, you need to know the laws on labelling. A raspberry yoghurt must contain some raspberry, but a raspberry-flavoured yoghurt has never seen a summer fruit. If it's a fruit-free "fruit" yoghurt, chances are modified starch has been used to thicken it and replace the texture of real fruit.

It is also worth watching out for the usual suspects: salt, sugars and fats. Ready-to-eat sandwiches have joined a wide range of snack foods in containing damagingly high levels of salt.

One of the most lucrative tricks of the trade is the use of high-fructose corn syrup. A sweetening agent made from corn, it mixes easily, extends shelf life and is eight times sweeter than sucrose (from cane sugar), allowing manufacturers to use less and reduce costs. It is also found in biscuits, gum, jams, jellies, yoghurts, many frozen foods (it helps prevent freezer burn) and hot dog buns (it helps brown and preserve the softness of bread).

But some nutritionists claim fructose acts more like a fat than a sugar in the body, and is one reason behind the problem of obesity in consumer societies.

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