People are constantly warned off E numbers as being bad for their health, but this is like arguing that all fish are poisonous.
There was an excellent programme on last night - the first in a series of three called "E numbers: an edible adventure" on BBC2. Food writer Stefan Gates gathered as many additive-filled foods as he could and gorged himself on them in an attempt to overdose on E numbers. Here's an unnecessary spoiler: he's fine.
In the media these additives are demonised. Natural and organic foods are becoming ever more popular, and the once-fashionable convenience foods like Smash and Angel Delight are being shunned as artificial and therefore unhealthy.
The fear of E numbers is a bit of a mystery to me. It's like avoiding all seafood because pufferfish ("fugu" in its native Japan) are poisonous when incorrectly prepared.
The E in E number stands for Europe. When a substance is given an E number, this means it has passed various European safety tests and has been cleared for use as a food additive by the European Union. Read that again if you need to. E numbers are safe to use in food according to EU law.
Now some E numbers get more attention than others, and of course there is always more work to be done to understand the effects of different substances on human health. E951, a sweetener called aspartame, is the centre of much safety debate, and it is absolutely right that potential problems are highlighted and investigated wherever there is cause for concern.
However back to my fish analogy - if someone told you not to tuck into that turbot because it's fish, you'd stare blankly. "Ah, but pufferfish are poisonous, and turbot's a fish!" your fellow diner might exclaim.
In the study of logic this is called a false syllogism, and the same applies to E numbers. Just because a few E numbers have been the subject of intense scientific and media scrutiny, this doesn't mean all E numbers are dangerous. Far from it.
If your local friendly food scientist were to hand you a plump, juicy orange and delightedly tell you it was stuffed full of E300, would you assume it had been tampered with? This natural-looking fruit has clearly been contaminated with evil E numbers... stay away, one might think.
E300 is ascorbic acid, also known as vitamin C. It's been established for centuries that this is a good thing for the human body, keeping the immune system in good health.
How about another step back? Were this same scientist to idly mention that he'd just taken a huge lungful of E939, you might think to ring an ambulance. Get this man the to E number ward, stat! And other excitable doctor phrases you learned from House.
You might, if you could keep a straight face. It's likely this chap's Joe Pasquale-esque voice would be a dead giveaway of what E939 is: helium gas, staple of kids' parties and juvenile research labs.
Finally, if you were so inclined as to find the helium voice _that_ funny, you may be gasping for breath from laughing, at which point our childish example of a scientist might mention your sudden increase in dosage of E948 and E941, and the marked increase of E290 coming our of your mouth. This is the final straw. Can we not escape these dreaded, lethal E numbers?
I'll leave you to look up the identities of these three E numbers and judge for yourselves whether they, and the rest of their clan, deserve the bad press they receive on an almost daily basis. Here's the list of E numbers on Wikipedia. After that, please enjoy your turbot. It’s delicious, non-toxic and definitely not a pufferfish.