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.
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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