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EU will ban a couple of "E xxx" food additives

From the middle of 2010, the European Union will ban several food additives.



Recall that in order to regulate these compounds that are being added to food and beverages with the goal to improve their taste or color, and in order to inform the consumers, the European countries have established the "E xxx" number system which was later adopted internationally.

The code "E xxx" really means that it has been tested, included in the database, and at least at some point, it was labeled safe in reasonable amounts. Of course, the consumers tend to view "E xxx" negatively - as a proof that something is wrong with the food. And of course, the scientific evaluation of each compound keeps on evolving.

The E's that will be banned since mid 2010 include

E 102 - Tartrazin yellow
E 104 - Quinoline yellow
E 110 - Sunset yellow SY
E 122 - Azorubine red
E 124 - Ponceau 4R red
Unlike these E's, the E-U has not yet been banned. ;-)

Well, of course, I can't promise you that all E's are harmless. Quite on the contrary, I can assure you it is not the case. But I can assure you that the typical people's understanding of their meaning and impact is completely irrational and the overall reaction is biased in the direction of "irrational fear" rather than "irrational indifference."




Some of these E's may lead to allergies, irritated skin conditions, and hyperactivity of children. But these are reactions that you could observe - and search for the reason after you see some trouble. And most people simply don't have any of these complications.

The main point the laymen seem to miss is that the natural products may also lead to allergies or other health problems. A chemical compound doesn't become "worse" once it gets an E symbol. In fact, I would claim that most people don't even understand that the term "chemical compound" refers to materials found in Nature, too. And they don't understand that chemistry can fully and accurately imitate a huge portion of the compounds that are found naturally.

Polls show that approximately one half of the people are repelled by the E's and they are ready to pay extra money for more expensive natural replacements. It is sometimes much more expensive, indeed. For example, an artificial vanilla essence costs $3 per kilogram. On the other hand, the price of natural vanilla is close to $30.

No doubt, the very cautious consumers have the right to be protected, whether or not their food preferences are based on facts or superstitions. If they want to pay and avoid all materials that have been classified by the "E xxx" system, good for them. However, I also feel that the remaining one half of the consumers - the rest of us who are not hysterical about chemical formulae - has the right to buy the cheaper food which contains "currently passing" E's.

It's clear that a lot of myths is being spread and these myths may always be justified by a type of "precautionary principle". One of the most serious stories involved E123 - Amaranth, a dark red or purple dye. In 1971, some Soviet scientists claimed that the compound has increased the cancer rate of their lab rats.

These results failed to be reproduced by any subsequent research - in Europe, America, and elsewhere. It's very likely that the original link was complete bogus. However, it's a story that will probably never die. The U.S. consumer activists went ballistic and the dye was banned in the U.S. It's also banned in Austria and a few other countries.

E123 - Amaranth shouldn't be confused with E122 - Carmoisine, found in marzipan etc. The latter is known (almost certainly but not quite certainly) to cause allergies and be carcinogenic, especially when it comes to bladder cancer (although you shouldn't expect the effect to be too strong), and is one of the additives from the list above to be banned.

Concerning possible consequences of the food additives, there can exist short-term and long-term consequences. The short-term impact is usually seen easily: for example, allergies to E's don't qualitatively differ from the allergy to peanuts. The long-term consequences are less clear.

However, my chemical intuition dictates me that it is immensely unlikely that compounds that decompose at higher temperatures can have any long-term effects. For example, E123 - Amaranth decomposes at 120 °C. That's its "melting point". That's very different from e.g. benzene, a carcinogenic compound that melts at 5.5 °C and boils at 80.1 °C but doesn't really decompose.

The carcinogenic compounds - or any compounds that are supposed to have a long-term impact - do have to possess some kind of "resiliency". That list includes heavy metals or benzene but not most of the dyes.

I think it's a good idea to have numbers for the compounds, to investigate their effects, and to ban some of them if problems are found. But I think it's stupid to punish a chemical compound just for its having a number. It's also silly to believe that artificially created compounds are "worse" than the natural ones even though they are demonstrably identical as far as all their physical properties go. And I think it's a sort of medieval superstition to consider an organic compound dangerous even though no negative impact has been observed for 50+ years or so.

And that's the memo.

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