My interest in social and cultural politics extends from my interest in genealogy and history and how they project into today's societies.
Artificial Colourings, Flavourings and Preservatives
I first became aware of the potential health issues with American food during the failed Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) negotiations between the USA and EU back in 2013.
When the negotiations were faltering I started to look at some of the major issues, and it was at this point I discovered the health and safety concerns with American foods to be one of the stumbling blocks.
As a Brit, food standards in the USA has no direct effect on me, and although I’m not a health freak I do find this subject of particular interest in that I am a vegetarian, and I do like to eat healthily. In that respect I was keen to look into this subject purely on an academic level e.g. out of curiosity.
When I looked further into this I was amazed to discover the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) apparently take a stance that food products should only be banned when they are proven to be harmful. In contrast the EFSA (European Food Safety Authority) only deem Food safe for human consumption once it has been proven so by independent scientific evidence.
I would be interested in what Americans think about the foods they eat and the toxins in those foods.
A Root Cause to the American Problem
What Are the Issues?
In browsing through all the documentation on the European Parliament’s website I came across a number of interesting issues relating to food health risks including:-
- Genetically Modified Foods
- Apples, and
Eating Foods Banned In Other Countries
Genetically Modified Foods
Personally, I don’t at this point have any informed opinions on GMC. However, under European Law GMCs are illegal.
This maybe something of nothing, and I understand that the differences may have been resolved in the negotiations anyway; besides, as a vegetarian it doesn’t concern me as I don’t eat oysters.
The issue revolved around how oysters are tested to ensure they are not contaminated with deadly bacteria.
In the EU it’s the oysters that are tested, while in the USA it’s the water they live in; obviously random sample testing rather than testing every oyster or every drop of water. I don’t have any strong views on which methodology is the more reliable; I guess for many people it’s something that’s open to debate.
This is one that does concern me. In Britain fresh apples only keep for a few weeks, maybe longer if you put them in the fridge. So I was shocked to learn that American apples can keep for up to 18 months because they are treated with diphenylamine; a toxin which is banned in the EU.
American Apples Banned in Europe
The Importance of Labelling
E-numbers is very important to EU consumers in that it enables us to easily find out for ourselves exactly what's in the food just by looking up the E-number; any at the same time and potential side effects, and what the safety limits are.
However, for any trade deal with America, Additives on food labelling for the American market can't be listed by their E-numbers. The proper name has to be shown, regardless to how long and meaningless that may be e.g. Carboxymethylcellulose instead of E466.
E-numbers is a comprehensive list of all food additives, which have been extensively tested and proved save for human consumption within the EU, and includes:-
- Preservatives, and
For example E161g is Canthaxanthin, a naturally occurring colour in many plants and birds e.g. mushrooms and flamingos, which is used for orange food colouring in food production. There is no known side effects in small doses, but can cause eye problems if taken in concentrated form e.g. in tanning pills.
Food additives are listed under their E-numbers, as ingredients on the food label, rather than under their common name. This makes it easier for the British pubic in that it’s easier to remember and look up a simple number rather than some long complex name. So if a particular person has an allergy to a particular E-number they can look out for it on the foods packaging and avoid buying foods with that E-number.
The list of E-numbers is constantly changing as ingredients subsequently found to be toxic are removed and new ingredients are added.
Currently there’s about 270 items listed, with any additive not on the list as not being permitted in food production. The main reasons why a substance is not listed as an E-number includes:-
- It’s not yet been tested and proved safe
- It’s been removed from the list because new evidence shows it to be unsafe, or
- It’s banned because it’s a toxin considered too unsafe for human consumption
The main issue with the TTIP negations in this respect from the EUs view point is that over 1,000 of the additives used in American food production for colouring, flavouring, and preservatives are substances banned in the EU; diphenylamine in apples being just one example. Another issue is that the FDA will not accept the import of any foods from the EU if ‘Additives’ are listed under their E-number on the label rather than by its full name e.g. Carboxymethylcellulose instead of E466.
It’s not uncommon for British food producers to avoid using E-number additives for flavouring and colouring; as they can then label their product as containing ‘No artificial colours’ and ‘No artificial flavouring’; which is always a good selling point in the UK.
The Health Dangers of Refined Foods
One thing I am aware of is the harm refine foods can have on health and welfare. There is a greater awareness of this in Europe, and while many chemicals in processed foods known to be toxic are banned in the EU, these same chemicals seem to be prevalent in American processed foods.
USA vs UK Foods
Having got interested in the subject I then began to take an interest in what Americans thought of British food; specifically by looking for feedback from Americans visiting and living in Britain; the prime source being YouTube.
One thing that became clear is that opinions are mixed; obviously because everyone’s tastes are different. However certain themes did become prominent, namely:-
- British food doesn’t keep so long
- British food tends to be more bland
- The difference in choice of food products
- Food cheaper in British supermarkets, and
- British chocolate far superior to American candy
UK vs USA Grocery Stores
Shorter Shelf Life of British Food Products
That doesn’t surprise me. Not only are a lot of preservatives used in American foods banned in Britain but also the British public are more inclined to buy food that is more natural; rather than products packed with loads of Additives.
A prime example for me is Crumpets, which I love as a treat; usually 6 or 8 in a pack. The only problem is that, even though I keep them in the fridge, if I don’t eat them within 48 hours they start to go mouldy.
It’s a question of what you’re used to.
Ever since I’ve been married we’ve never added salt to our cooking, and apart from chips don’t put salt on our food (chips being the British word for fries). The reason we’ve chosen not to use salt is that there’s too much salt in processed food, so even without adding any additional salt to our diet we still exceed the recommended daily requirement. So it’s a decision on health grounds in that too much salt in the diet can raise blood pressure and cause other health issues.
It’s something we’ve become accustom to, and as I grow and cook our own vegetables we can enjoy the full flavour of the food. Whereas now, if we’re invited to a friends for an evening meal, and they’ve used lots of salt then all we can taste is the salt and not the food.
I guess it’s the same with Americans visiting Britain, in that artificial flavouring is used sparingly in British food (compared with America) because of the associated health risks. Therefore, I’m not surprised if some Americans find our food bland; as expressed in some videos on YouTube.
However, to us Brits, it’s full of natural flavour.
Is British Food Really That Bad?
Links Between Diet And Health
All Things in Moderation
Most people should be aware that healthy eating and a healthy lifestyle dramatically reduces the risk of many common illnesses, including cancers, diabetes and blood pressure etc.
However, a surprisingly large number of people don’t look after their body; especially in America, from what I can gather.
From what I read on the web, see on the TV and from conversing with Americans on line, I get the distinct impression that:-
- · American portions are much larger than in Europe.
- · Americans eat a lot more junk food and fast food.
- · The American diet is less balanced e.g. higher levels of sugar, salt and fats and less fresh fruit and veg, and fibre.
Although Europeans in many countries do each too much, and often junk and fast foods with high levels of sugar, salt and fats, Europeans in general are more health conscious. So although we do have obesity, diabetes and other health issues related to bad diet, it doesn’t appear to be on the same scale as in America.
To start with we don’t have the ‘Drive-through, and we don’t rush our meals in restaurants. My understanding is that in the fast-pace life of American culture people rush to down large portions of junk and fast foods in typically 20 to 40 minutes. Whereas, in Europe, going to the restaurant is an experienced to be enjoyed, the emphasis being more on enjoying the meal at a social and leisurely pace; typically taking 2 hours, during which time the quantities consumed are modest.
Europeans Are Healthier Than Americans
In Britain, the strategy of the NHS (National Health Service) is preventative healthcare through education and awareness campaigns. Unlike America, where more patient visits to hospitals (and sometimes unnecessary procedures) means more profits for doctors, specialists and medical insurance companies, in the UK healthcare is free to everybody at the point of use. Therefore, more visits to hospitals for unnecessary preventative illnesses costs more tax payers money e.g. the NHS is funded through taxes.
Therefore, by the NHS actively educating people to eat more healthily and lead healthier lifestyles, reduces to demand for treating preventative illnesses like diabetes due to obesity and poor diets. In conjunction with this as well as the NHS running its own awareness campaigns, such as the well-publicised ‘five a day’ advice (five portions of fruit a day), and plugging the importance of exercise, a number of popular TV channels run their own ‘wellbeing’ documentary series. Two such TV series I and my wife regularly watch are:-
- Trust Me I’m a Doctor on BBC, and
- The Food Hospital on Channel 4.
When I talked about these programmes to an American friend he told me that they have similar programmes on American TV but they are not of such great value because they tend to be sponsored by drug companies who plug their products with an overdose of advertising throughout the series.
In contrast, in Britain, these programmes are hosted by NHS professionals who have no invested interest in plugging any product or service; simply because the NHS is free at the point of use.
Trust Me I'm a Doctor: Trailer
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2017 Arthur Russ
Arthur Russ (author) from England on February 05, 2019:
Thanks for your feedback Cecil; it’s good to hear your comparison between the USA and Japan foods. It’s not just Europe that bans the toxins frequently used in American foods, many other countries, including Japan also ban many of the toxins.
From watching films on TV I get the impression that Japanese food is radically different to American food; and quite healthy to. It might interest you to know that Japan, with average life span of 83.7 years, currently has the highest life expectancy in the world, closely followed by the Mediterranean countries at 82.9 years. The UK comes in at 26th and the USA at 43rd place out of 195 countries, but on current trends the USA is predicted to fall to 64th place by 2040.
The Mediterranean is recognised as having one of the healthiest diet and lifestyle in the world, so we could all learn a lot from them. In fact Monaco (a small independent city-state on the French southern coast) currently has the highest life expectancy in the world of 89.5 years; which is almost 10 years longer than the USA average of 79.8 years.
Why is the Mediterranean diet good for your heart? https://youtu.be/o5aof7UI3yg
Cecil Kenmill from Osaka, Japan on February 04, 2019:
Great article! I've lived in Japan for the past few years but I grew up in the US. When it comes to the food between them, it's night and day--even the processed and fast food. I've never been to Britain but I'll take your word for it.
Arthur Russ (author) from England on January 22, 2017:
Thanks for your feedback. We harvest apples from a small apple tree in our back garden every autumn (part of our mini orchard). Because they don’t keep, those we can’t eat within the first month are used to make apple pies, apple sauce and apple wine for the year. If I had the space in our garden shed I could keep them over the winter months provided they were kept cool, dark, dry and vented.
Dora Weithers from The Caribbean on January 21, 2017:
Life in the Caribbean used to be influenced more by the British than the Americans. Not sure who is the major influence now, but we eat more American foods. Yes, the apples we import last almost forever. The British are obviously eating more healthy.
Larry Rankin from Oklahoma on January 21, 2017: