Smarties

The ins and outs of how we colour our food

Nestle’s new television adverts for Smarties are a cross between grown-up Teletubbies in head-to-toe lycra jumpsuits and the parable of the prodigal son. You’ve probably caught a glimpse of their idyllic, pastoral scene being abruptly disrupted by the appearance of Blue Smartie on the ridgeline. His former friends flee to the safety of their tubular home, dispatching Yellow to get rid of the unwelcome intruder. All is well though, because Blue is now free of artificial colours; no longer a pariah, he can rejoin the community. The Smarties rainbow is complete again.

How sweet. But, one wonders, why were the old colours dropped? Why has it taken so long to replace blue? And perhaps most importantly, what has it been replaced with?

Nestle got rid of the artificial colourants in Smarties three years ago.

Until then, the blue shade was provided by an extract from coal tar which revels in the food additives label E133. Though banned at one time or another by Austria, Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Norway, Spain and Sweden, Brilliant Blue, as it is more commonly known, is currently deemed safe for use as a food dye within the EU.

The reason for dropping Brilliant Blue, and several other colours, was for appearances, admits Richard Wood, regulatory affairs manager and food law adviser at Nestle confectionary. A growing number of consumers are demanding additive-free products. The trend got another boost late last year when a study conducted for the Food Standards Agency by Professor Jim Stevenson at Southampton University linked artificial additives with hyperactivity in children, even though the connection was not strong.

Nestle, like other food processing companies, is keen to be on the right side of that trend. Rather than arguing until it’s blue in the face that E133 is safe, it prefers to trumpet its newly natural ingredients, though perhaps without going in to too much detail.

Take cochineal, for instance, an ingredient that contributes to the red, orange and chocolate brown tones in Smarties. Cochineal comes originally from Mexico, where it is found in the bodies of a cactus parasite, an insect called Dactylopius coccus. For centuries, these bugs have been swept off cacti, boiled or baked and used as a reddish dye.

Records from Montezuma’s reign show it was part of the tribute paid by at least 11 of the Aztec cities he conquered, before himself being overthrown by the Spanish. During the 20th century, the cochineal industry was all but wiped out by cheaper artificial colours, but has been making a comeback in recent years as demand grows for natural ingredients, no matter how unpalatable they may be.

Blue was harder to replace, though. Which is not surprising. Historically, blue has always been the most difficult colour. The first colour-fast blue dye came from shellfish and was so valuable that only the aristocracy could afford it. Purple has traditionally been the colour of royalty for a reason.

Nestle eventually found a substitute in alkalai ponds. A cyanobacteria, or blue-green algae, called Spirulina (actually two species, Arthrospira platensis, and Arthrospira maxima) provides the appropriate colour, though food scientists worried that its strong seaweed smell might put off customers, Mr Wood said. Fortunately, the concentration of Spirulina is so low that the odour is masked by the rich aroma of the chocolate.

Like cochineal, the use of spirulina as a food comes to us from Mexico, where, according to one of Cortes’s soldiers, it was harvested from lake Texcoco (now Mexico City) by dragging a rope across the surface, drying the sludge into cakes and selling them as food under the brand name Teocuitlatl, meaning “stone’s excrement”. Clearly the Aztec’s had an interesting sense of truth in advertising. Both Nasa and the European Space Agency have proposed it as a possible food source for long interplanetary missions, such as to Mars.

At a molecular level, the distinction between artificial and natural disappears. Artificiality does not necessarily mean dangerous, any more than naturalness means safe. Nature has many deadly products, from toadstools and digitalis to snake venoms. As scientists investigate what we eat in greater detail, it is becoming clear that foods can have both beneficial and detrimental effects at the same time.

For an example of this, one need look no further than beta carotene, another natural Smarties additive derived from the fungus Blakeslea trispora found in the orange and red sweets. Beta carotene is most famous for giving carrots their orange hue, but it has also been found to have anti-oxidant properties, and 50mg every two days has been shown to prevent cognitive decline among 4,000 physicians. On the down side, it has been linked to increased risk of lung cancer among smokers and those who have been exposed to asbestos. Fortunately for Nestle, the doses contained in Smarties are so low they are unlikely to make much difference.

Paul Rodgers is a freelance science, medicine and technology journalist. He was born in Derby, the son of a science teacher, and emigrated with his family to the Canadian prairies when he was nine. He began writing for a student newspaper in Winnipeg in 1982 and had staff positions on several Canadian dailies. Despite his return to these shores 15 years ago, he still talks with a funny accent.
A girl in an Ariana Grande top. Photo: Getty
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The joy of teenage girls is the heart of pop - we can't let the Manchester attack change that

What happened in Manchester feels horribly new because it targeted young girls in one of the places where young girls can be themselves to the fullest.

This morning, while the radio news talked of nothing but Manchester, my 10-year-old daughter asked me if it was still safe to go and see Adele at Wembley Stadium in July. The ticket was her big Christmas present and the printout of the order confirmation has been blu-tacked to her wall for months. She’s as excited about it as she has been excited about any event in her life, but now she’s also scared. Could this have happened to her when she saw Ed Sheeran the other week? Could it happen to her at Wembley, or anywhere else? I am sure that there are similar conversations happening across the country. Some long-awaited birthday treats will be cancelled. Red letter days erased from the calendar. Parents can allay their children’s fears (and their own), and decide to go ahead despite them, but they cannot pretend the fear isn’t there, suddenly, where it wasn’t before.

When I first started going to gigs in 1989, I never worried about not coming back. I fretted about missing the last train back to the suburbs, or not having a good view of the stage. You can feel unsafe at a gig, especially if you’re a girl in a moshpit where boys can’t keep their hands to themselves, but usually not life-or-death unsafe. Fatal crowd disasters such as Roskilde in 2000 and Cincinnati in 1979 have spurred the concert industry into making venues as safe as possible. There are sensible, practical measures you can take to avoid crushes.

Terrorism at music venues, however, is relatively new and hard to deal with. This is why the Bataclan massacre in November 2015 had such an enormous impact. There is no hierarchy of tragedy — a death due to terrorism is a death due to terrorism, whether it’s in a concert hall in Paris or a mosque in Iraq — but some tragedies are so close to home that they change the way you think. The first show I attended after the Bataclan (New Order in Brixton) was charged with a strange electricity, as defiance defeated anxiety and the rational mind silenced this new kind of fear. A few weeks later I saw Savages in Paris and it was even more intense. The venue was small and subterranean. I have never paid such close attention to the location of the exits.

Everyone has tried to reassert normality after an atrocity has felt like this: the first time they took the tube after 7/7, or went to work in New York in September 2001, or danced in Miami after the Pulse shootings, or stayed out late in Istanbul after last New Year’s Eve. In some countries the fear is never allowed to fade. What happened in Manchester feels horribly new because it targeted young girls in one of the places where young girls can be themselves to the fullest.

The joy of teenage girls is the heart of pop, and it is often misunderstood, if not patronised and dismissed. Their excitement doesn’t derive purely from fancying the star on the stage — when I saw Taylor Swift or Miley Cyrus (at the MEN arena in fact), the screaming was as intense as it is for any boy band. In fact, it’s not entirely to do with what’s happening on the stage at all. As a critic in my 40s who’s been to hundreds of shows, I may be bothered by an incoherent concept or a mid-set lull, but nobody around me is solely interested in the performance. Even shows that I’ve found disappointing have an ecstatic carnival atmosphere because a pop show is a catalyst for a great night out — one that may have been anticipated for months. The pop star is a vessel for a mess of inchoate desires and thrilling, confusing sensations (Bowie knew this) so the girls aren’t just screaming for the star; they’re screaming for themselves and for each other. They are celebrating music, of course, but also youth, friendship, the ineffable glee of the moment, life at its most unquenchable. It’s a rite of passage that should never be contaminated by even an inkling of dread.

First and foremost, I feel compassion for the victims and their friends and families. Then for the survivors, including Ariana Grande, who will be traumatised for a long time to come. But beyond those immediately affected, this atrocity will cast a long shadow across the youths of countless pop fans. Will something like this happen again? Perhaps not. Statistically, the possibility of an attack at one particular show is minuscule. Over time, the fear will subside, because it always does. My daughter is absolutely still going to see Adele, and she’ll have a whale of a time. But the knowledge that it could happen at all means a loss of innocence.

Dorian Lynskey is a journalist living in London. He blogs at:

33RevolutionsPerMinute.wordpress.com

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