Additives…flavouring, flavour enhancers…

Flavouring and Flavour enhancers  – E numbers 600-699

Our ‘taste’ experience is created in the brain using a combination of taste and smell (either before or during eating) and even sight. We also have a taste expectation before we even try something based on these visual and olfactory aspects along with our past experiences.

The food industry uses flavourings to actually impart flavour or enhance it (either by intensifying it or supporting it without adding another taste). Common everyday flavour enhancers like salt and sugar are used to bring out the flavour in savoury and sweet foods by supporting the original taste. Others like lactic acid and citric acid are used to assist in the creation of specific sour or fermented tastes.

Lab created artificial sweeteners (see sweeteners etc. post) and other flavour enhancers routinely come under fire from health groups as they are thought to break down into toxic and neurotoxic chemical compounds when inside the body and cause harmful inflammation and increase the risk of many common chronic diseases.

The most famous (or infamous) flavor enhancer is monosodium glutamate/E621. A Japanese scientist (Kikunae Ikeda) noted there was a taste that he seemed unable to place within the usual four already established and accepted tastes – sweet, sour, bitter and salty. So he isolated and discovered this extra ‘taste’ in 1908, named it umami and added it to the existing four. He derived it from seaweed originally although it is made from ‘bacterial fermentation’ nowadays (like vinegar and yoghurt are). The additional taste of umami  that MSG provides is a much sort after extra element in foods and other more ‘natural’ versions are available to provide this much desired flavour layer.

MSG has been much vilified for it’s reported side effects (the so-called Chinese Restaurant Syndrome but now more known by the more PC term of MSG symptom complex) although repeated testing has reported it as safe to use. Just as a point of interest the initial person who sparked the MSG backlash (a certain Robert Ho Man Kwok) made a passing remark about feeling awful after a Chinese meal but cited many possible elements of the meal that could have triggered the reactions, but for some reason MSG became the target and the others were never blamed similarly. I am continually amazed at the levels of sodium overall in Chinese take away style food and always feel peculiar after it whether there’s MSG or not. Anyhoo…

Natural flavourings are costly and often inefficient to extract so imitation copies are made and provide a cheaper, more stable (for longer term storage) and more reliably consistent additive. Flavourings are added to a wide range of foods and usually in very small amounts just to give a particular taste or smell. Flavourings are technically additives but they don’t have E numbers because they are controlled by different laws. An ingredients list will say if flavourings have been used (sometimes adding natural when appropriate), but individual flavourings are usually not named. Food legislation requires that a product that is not flavoured wholly or mainly by the one advertised on the packaging (in words or in images) must clearly say ‘flavoured’ or ‘flavour’.

So as always and ever check the ingredients list for any information you need. Try to see past the packaging and the carefully placed wording that might trick you ‘inadvertently’ into buying something under false pretences…

Additives…raising agents, anti-caking agents…

Raising agents

Raising agents are additives (liquid or powder) that are there to ensure the product not only rises but also has an even texture. For instance, a well known raising agent, bicarbonate of soda/baking soda (E501) or technically sodium bicarbonate (as used in the Jaffa Cakes above*), reacts with the ingredients around it (the acidity and the moisture) when heated and produces bubbles of gas (carbon dioxide) which expand and raise the mixture around it and then becomes encased in that mixture as it cooks and sets, creating a uniform and stable structure and texture. Baking powder is bicarbonate soda and cream of tartar mixed (with a starch usually) to be a more all-in-one raising agent as the cream of tartar (E336(i) – a by-product of wine making) provides the acidic element needed to trigger the bicarb soda.

Natural processes like whipping air into egg whites or batter, sifting flours and rubbing fats into them all assist in the raising and structure of baked goods, and similarly using water to create steam during the baking process will raise the mixture around it up till it sets when cooked, such as the process used in making Yorkshire puddings. Yeast is a perfect natural raising agent – multiplying in heat and fermenting to create the carbon dioxide and alcohol that will expand and burn off in the cooking process leaving a well structured and risen product.

*Three are actually listed in the ingredients list above – sodium bicarbonate (aka baking soda E500(i)), ammonium bicarbonate (E503(ii) actually part of the group of acidity regulators and anti-caking agents and used as an acidity regulator) and disodium diphosphate (E450(i) actually part of the group of emulsifiers and used for that purpose.

Anti-caking agents

Anti-caking agents are added to food products to ensure they remain free flowing and prevent them from clumping together, and so this means the product can retain it’s long shelf life and be used at any point required in an even manner. Main examples are powders like dried milk or creamer, drinking chocolate, soup or cake mixes and items like icing sugar, grated cheeses and salt. The additive is necessary as without it there is a high possibility that minute water absorption (atmospheric humidity) would cause the product to clump together and rehydrate, causing it to spoil and/or be difficult to use. Sometimes the anti-caking element is added before processing and is often for the safeguarding of the machinery involved as much as the end result produced and it’s journey onwards. Sugar and powdered milk will lump and stick together during processing, packing and storage without the addition of the agents.

The most commonly used anti-caking agent (multi-functional additive) is silicon dioxide (E551) – as used in the instant custard mix above – also called silica and is essentially sand (although amethysts and quartz are versions too…but not used in food processing…!) It is also thought to be a useful mineral to our general health as it is part of collagen and used to make our hair and nails. It is found naturally in many foods like fruits, oats, nuts, beans and leafy greens and is added as an active ingredient to supplements and as an enhancer.

Other manufactured and mineral based anti-caking agents include magnesium carbonate (E504), calcium silicate (E552), dicalcium phosphate (E341) and sodium aluminosilicate (E554). Naturally sourced agents are potato starch, kaolin, and talc.

Eggs…part 2: the battery farmed hen…

Firstly, lets remind ourselves that hen’s would naturally place themselves into hierarchical flocks (hence ‘pecking order’), forage for food on the ground around them (they are omnivorous and eat insects, seeds, plants etc), lay eggs in a nest, flap their wings, ‘bathe’ in dust and dirt, and perch. So, let’s consider the various wording and labels on eggs in the supermarket, and where the eggs we are buying fit into the spectrum from as near to natural as possible through to the force farmed, mass produced versions.
Under EU law the egg boxes must clearly declare how the hens are kept and each egg must be stamped with a code that further reveals the origin and method of feeding. This handy diagram from the website helps us decipher the code:
Lets look at this from left to right. According to the official website:
‘The British Lion mark denotes eggs produced to a stringent Code of Practice incorporating the latest research and advice on Salmonella and eggs from scientists and vets. British Lion eggs account for more than 85% of UK egg production. The Lion Quality mark, which is a registered trademark, can only be used by subscribers to the British Egg Industry Council on eggs which have been produced in accordance with UK and EU law and the Lion Quality Code of Practice. The Lion Code of Practice is monitored by an independent agency in accordance with the EN 45011 standard. Farms and packing stations are regularly audited, including unannounced audits.’
But does the Red Lion stamped on the egg really mean anything of any actual importance? In 1988 when Edwina Curry announced in cavalier fashion that most of the country’s eggs were contaminated with salmonella, the sale of eggs plummeted and the poor outspoken dear was forced to resign. Let’s not let the personalities overshadow the facts. There was indeed a severe and dangerous problem with salmonella in eggs at the time and the Lion Quality Code of Practice and associated branding came in to attempt to rectify the loss of faith in the egg industry. This voluntary code is subscribed to by egg producers to show their hens are vaccinated against salmonella, and the eggs come with a ‘best before’ date for added assurance to us punters. Incidentally, many small scale, local, free range/organic places don’t vaccinate and claim, with some good sense, that their eggs are not from hens ever exposed to the deadly bacteria and not living in an environment where they are remotely likely to be exposed.
Ok, so that’s a plus point (ish) but what about the quality of the hen’s life and environment? Again I specifically ask this as these factors directly affect the egg and its nutritional value. Maybe like me you associate words like ‘free-range’ with open fields and no chemical enhancements, and make necessary assumptions, with no available further indications, of what ‘barn raised’, ‘colony raised’ and ‘organic’ actually mean. Incidentally, wording like ‘farm assured’ and ‘farm fresh’ mean bog all, so try to ignore these and focus in on the facts.
Just to the right of the stamped Red Lion is a number, each indicating the farming method:
0 – organic
1 – free-range
2 – barn
3 – caged
Let’s start with ‘caged’:
Clearly using the number ‘3’ looks less grim and off putting than using the word ‘caged’. This refers to battery cages, the original types which were banned only as recently as 2012 throughout the EU, and now replaced with so-called ‘enriched’ cages. Bizarrely it took years to get these first cages banned. With an average of four hens in each cage each hen had no more than a space the size of an A4 piece of paper to stand in and it could only just stand upright. The wire cages were stacked high upon each other with up to 100,000 hens reported in the largest factories. The cages pulled their feathers out and rubbed their skin raw and unable to expression any natural movement they attacked each other and many suffered broken bones and wings. Their beaks were trimmed to prevent them hurting or even cannibalising each other and they were left in artificial light with endless food so they just existed to lay eggs.
Enriched cages increase the size of the area the hen has to ‘live’ in (by about a postcard size per bird) and include perches (a small rail) and nesting boxes (well, one) – which means the hens will compete for access to them (remember the ‘pecking order’) – and the dominant birds will win. There’s a miniscule  place to scratch their claws and generally express at least some of their natural instincts…well that’s the theory. However, don’t be fooled, the hens still cannot flap their wings and exercise or forage and still die young suffering from physical deterioration due to lack of freedom and space. There is still no daylight or fresh air and everything in their environment is controlled and artificial. De-beaking is still practised to protect the hens from hurting and cannibalising each other – yes they are that stressed and frustrated. The deafening noise and stench must be flooring in themselves. It’s still shameful intensive battery farming however you dress it. Most are passed their producing maximum within 18 months but they could ordinarily live to around 10 years old and produce eggs for a majority of their lives in different amounts.
THEN as a final degradation, now that the hen is considered knackered she is dipped in a weakly electrified vat of water to stun her and then hung upside down past an electric saw and slaughtered by decapitation…
Unless an ingredient list specifically states otherwise, the eggs contained in that sandwich you had for lunch, your children’s school dinners, any and all the prepared and processed foods you buy (which you shouldn’t be anyway, right?!?) will be from caged birds.
A word about yolk colour. Lots of us look for a nice plump golden yellow yolk and immediately think of healthy sunshine and free range hens. However, battery hens (and many others besides) are endlessly fed on grain and soya and some form of colourant is used to ensure the yolk you expect. A controversial synthetic additive called canthaxanthin is used often and where it is not a derivative of citrus peel is added. Obviously, the egg is as healthy as the food that helped form it, and this colour enhancement is of no nutritional value and is a con.
Finally, before we explore the alternatives, need I remind you to ask yourself where all the male chicks go? Useless to the egg laying industry do you think they are left to grow and used for some effective purpose or do you think they are disposed of? I looked into it and it was horrific. I’ll just tell you there was a conveyor belt and an electric mincer…it’s another black mark against humanity…
So what are our options…? In the next part we will look at ‘barn’, ‘free-range’, and ‘organic’.