Squeaky trolleys, muzak and the dreaded cash desk confront workers each week at the supermarket. Rows and rows of tinned foodstuffs, packaged and preserved for cheap transportation, compete for space with mountains of liberally sprayed fruit. Endless brands of washing powder with new formulas attempt to entice us with promises of “5p off your next buy”.
This is all very familiar and has been the way of things for quite some years now. Supermarkets mean low-cost retailing (bulk buying and selling, fewer shop workers, efficient use of floor space) and fast- speed spending for the consumers. Capitalism devotes huge resources to telling us exactly what we should consume — and convincing people to buy things they might not really need is no simple task. We all know from experience that packaging often belies the nature of the product itself, but in the last couple of years companies have been employing a new selling technique.
Although food adulteration is hardly a recent feature of capitalism, millions of workers have become aware of the danger of additives. It has been shown that the “E” numbers on the back of most food packets can cause or exacerbate a whole host of health problems, including hyperactivity in children and breathing difficulties. One of the most infamous is the yellow colouring Tartrazine (E 102). which is used in a large variety of packet convenience foods, cakes, sweets and sauces. Reactions to it include bronchospasm, skin rashes, rhinitis and blurred vision (M. Hanssen. E For Additives, Thorsons Publishers. 1985) and it is particularly dangerous for those who are asthmatic or prone to allergies.
After a number of books were published and TV programmes warned of the dangers, consumers started consciously to check the ingredients of food packages before buying. Products with potentially dangerous additives like Tartrazine started to lose out, and so was born a new selling gimmick. Now emblazoned across lurid tins and bottles everywhere are the magic words “Free from additives” and “No artificial colourings or preservatives”. Food purity is now big business. It’s almost as if products without these catchy little phrases on the front are admitting that they might make your hair fall out or bring on a rare chest complaint. So every company that wants to keep its share of the market is forced to juggle around with its ingredients until it can plaster on the obligatory “No additives”.
A “jumbo sized” soft drink I recently bought from the supermarket was a prime example of this. “Free from artificial flavours and sweeteners” and most importantly “Tartrazine free”. All well and good. However, in the list of ingredients were two colourings — the sublimely entitled Sunset Yellow and the not so sublime Ponceau 4R. The former is in fact additive E 110 which carries the risk of allergic reaction, especially in people sensitive to aspirin, producing gastric upset, vomiting and skin rashes. Ponceau 4R, a red colouring, should be avoided by asthmatics and anyone with aspirin sensitivity. Tartrazine, scourge of the health conscious, has been widely replaced as a colouring agent by two additives which are likely to produce similar, if not worse, effects. Of course, if companies consider it in their interest to put “Free from Sunset Yellow’ on their labels in future, they are just as likely to replace it with something as bad.
Behind neatly stacked shelves and glitzy packaging lies the reality of poor quality goods notable for their chemical rather than nutritional content. The colourings, anti-oxidants and preservatives present in so much food and drink are there to facilitate and prolong shelf-life. In short, food manufacturers and retailers are more concerned with preserving their profits than our health.