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.
Photo: Getty Images
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How can Britain become a nation of homeowners?

David Cameron must unlock the spirit of his postwar predecessors to get the housing market back on track. 

In the 1955 election, Anthony Eden described turning Britain into a “property-owning democracy” as his – and by extension, the Conservative Party’s – overarching mission.

60 years later, what’s changed? Then, as now, an Old Etonian sits in Downing Street. Then, as now, Labour are badly riven between left and right, with their last stay in government widely believed – by their activists at least – to have been a disappointment. Then as now, few commentators seriously believe the Tories will be out of power any time soon.

But as for a property-owning democracy? That’s going less well.

When Eden won in 1955, around a third of people owned their own homes. By the time the Conservative government gave way to Harold Wilson in 1964, 42 per cent of households were owner-occupiers.

That kicked off a long period – from the mid-50s right until the fall of the Berlin Wall – in which home ownership increased, before staying roughly flat at 70 per cent of the population from 1991 to 2001.

But over the course of the next decade, for the first time in over a hundred years, the proportion of owner-occupiers went to into reverse. Just 64 percent of households were owner-occupier in 2011. No-one seriously believes that number will have gone anywhere other than down by the time of the next census in 2021. Most troublingly, in London – which, for the most part, gives us a fairly accurate idea of what the demographics of Britain as a whole will be in 30 years’ time – more than half of households are now renters.

What’s gone wrong?

In short, property prices have shot out of reach of increasing numbers of people. The British housing market increasingly gets a failing grade at “Social Contract 101”: could someone, without a backstop of parental or family capital, entering the workforce today, working full-time, seriously hope to retire in 50 years in their own home with their mortgage paid off?

It’s useful to compare and contrast the policy levers of those two Old Etonians, Eden and Cameron. Cameron, so far, has favoured demand-side solutions: Help to Buy and the new Help to Buy ISA.

To take the second, newer of those two policy innovations first: the Help to Buy ISA. Does it work?

Well, if you are a pre-existing saver – you can’t use the Help to Buy ISA for another tax year. And you have to stop putting money into any existing ISAs. So anyone putting a little aside at the moment – not going to feel the benefit of a Help to Buy ISA.

And anyone solely reliant on a Help to Buy ISA – the most you can benefit from, if you are single, it is an extra three grand from the government. This is not going to shift any houses any time soon.

What it is is a bung for the only working-age demographic to have done well out of the Coalition: dual-earner couples with no children earning above average income.

What about Help to Buy itself? At the margins, Help to Buy is helping some people achieve completions – while driving up the big disincentive to home ownership in the shape of prices – and creating sub-prime style risks for the taxpayer in future.

Eden, in contrast, preferred supply-side policies: his government, like every peacetime government from Baldwin until Thatcher’s it was a housebuilding government.

Why are house prices so high? Because there aren’t enough of them. The sector is over-regulated, underprovided, there isn’t enough housing either for social lets or for buyers. And until today’s Conservatives rediscover the spirit of Eden, that is unlikely to change.

I was at a Conservative party fringe (I was on the far left, both in terms of seating and politics).This is what I said, minus the ums, the ahs, and the moment my screensaver kicked in.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.