Additives in Europe - gotta know the enemy


UK, Spain, France, Germany, Austria, Italy, Switzerland 2014

On our recent 3 month hiking tour of Europe, I was interested to see the effect of the food industry’s  global Clean Label strategy.  This is a push to make consumers believe that food is healthier – though not to actually improve the food. 

Nearly everywhere we saw food for sale, we saw the colour green.  According to BigFoodSpeak, green signifies environmental awareness. In England there were endless signs telling us the food was healthy, or good, or fair trade, or prepared in our own kitchen or grown by a local farmer.   But … the food is still the same.  It was so hard to find genuinely healthy food.  One woman in an English fine food store told us ‘the food is getting better’. No, it isn’t. It just looks that way. Most of it is still loaded with fat, salt and additives. They’ve removed some artificial colours and changed the labels to look healthier, is all. 

Compared to our trip in 2001, the food in Europe is worse.  It was easier then to avoid artificial colours than to avoid the bread preservative now.  On the 14-day 190 mile Coast to Coast walk we couldn’t eat bread because all except from one bakery café contained preservative E282 calcium propionate - as cultured dextrose in the organic loaves - so we filled up on chips for dinner. What a disaster. Despite hiking nearly 1000 kms and catering for ourselves whenever possible, we both gained weight - 5.5 kg for me and 4 kg for Howard. (It’s already half gone thanks to the advice in our Failsafe Weight Loss factsheet.)


We even found one bread with 'fermented wheat flour' as an ingredient to hide the propionate preservative. See separate blog on bread preservative in Europe and footnote below.

Of course, European food is far better than English food, but there are plenty of traps. The problem is that European consumers know nothing about additives.  The Green Day song that seemed to be playing everywhere said it all: “gotta know the enemy”.

Sulphite preservatives in vino and sidra

On the Spanish Camino de Santiago trail, every pilgrim menu for about $10 offers 3 courses plus bread and a bottle of vino.  We met a young Belgian pilgrim named Katrine who couldn’t understand why she was struggling with asthma .

“Do you normally drink wine every night at home?” I asked.

No, she admitted.  She had no idea that:

  • wine is the biggest source of sulphite preservatives for adults AND
  • sulphite preservatives are the additives most associated with asthma.

“You don’t have to stop drinking wine,” I explained.  There is a product called SO2GO that reduces sulphite preservatives in wine, champagne, beer and cider. As they claim on their website, this reduction can help prevent side effects such as wheezing, headaches, Asian flush, stuffy nose, hives and other reactions to wine. Oh, and Katrine was carrying dried apricots as trail food. Asthmatics should steer clear of trail mix with dried fruits. And sausages.  (See how to avoid sulphites and the dangers of dried fruit)

“I wish you would come to Belgium and tell people about additives,” Katrine said as we parted. “My doctor never told me that”.

Needless to say,SO2GO  doesn’t help with salicylates so Howard and I mostly avoided the wine or drank small amounts of wine heavily diluted with soda water. And that’s where we came across another trap.

Artificial sweeteners

Soda water is hard to describe in another language.

Gaseosa? suggested a helpful Spanish waiter. It sounded okay. But when he assured us cheerfully it had no sugar, we read the label. Oh no, gaseosa means soft drinks and even the plain unflavoured one contains artificial sweeteners. We found it difficult to buy plain soda water (agua con gas) in many places in Europe.


Artificial colours and annatto E160b

Since 2008, Europeans have been required to display the warning "may have an adverse effect on activity and attention in children" on foods containing any of the six artificial colours used in Southampton University studies. Rather than use the warning, many manufacturers have switched to natural colours including annatto (E160b) - a natural yellow colour - that is now widespread in many foods that were previously uncoloured or coloured with the safer beta carotene, such as plain biscuits and shortbreads.   Many of the families in our network have found that annatto causes worse problems than artificial colours. See annatto factsheet

Artificial colours such as E133 brilliant blue that were not included in the Southampton University study are still used. And Europeans need to be looking at their pharmaceuticals because the ban doesn’t apply to those, for example, toothpaste commonly contains patent blue CI 77891, another name for artificial blue E131.

On this trip, for the first time in Europe, I saw badly behaved hyperactive children in non-English speaking countries and wondered what they were eating. The bread preservative E282 has become very common in sandwich breads especially in prepacked sandwiches at roadside stops on the motorways.

Spain is the worst of the non-English speaking countries we visited, in terms of additives. In one Spanish albergue (pilgrim inn), the owner overheard me talking about the bread preservative and came to pick my brains. He has two daughters aged 5 and 9 and is very worried about their lack of attention and poor school performance.  He had no idea that a preservative in bread could cause these kinds of problems. He fetched the two types of supermarket breads their daughters ate for breakfast and I read labels: both contained propionate-based bread preservatives.

“I suppose you don’t want this want this for breakfast either,” he said ruefully, and the next morning we were offered traditional panaderia bread.

Looking in Spanish supermarkets later I found many loaves – even some labelled rustico or traditional, all the tortillas (wraps) and many croissants and magdalenas with bread preservative listed as:

  • E281 conservatore
  • E282 conservatore or
  • calcio propionato
  • Many breads also contained E202 potassium sorbate.


My conclusion: it is likely that many Spanish children and adults now eat propionate-based additives every day and are wondering why they have problems. They are also pretty liberal with their other preservatives. It is a long time since Australian manufacturers stopped using artificial colours and preservatives in jam, but some Spanish confituras still contain conservantes and even colorante. See more in our Bread preservative factsheet and Sorbates factsheet

Flavour enhancers

I am always amazed that the Germans who are so careful about other additives don’t seem to know about MSG-style flavour enhancers.  As in Australia, flavour enhancers have become widespread under a myriad of names.  It would appear they are added as yeast extract (hefeextrakt), gemüseextrakt (vegetable extract) and probably some others. 


While in the UK, I checked supermarket sausages. As I would expect, all contained sulphite preservatives. Probably due to the Clean Label strategy, these were mostly in words: sodium sulphite or sodium metabisulphite instead of E221 or E223. Two brands contained E621 otherwise known as MSG, but most contained yeast extract and some listed ‘flavourings’. I regard these last two as dodgy ingredients that are often used instead of MSG although they can have the same effects, see MSG factsheet.   Out of ten brands there was only one high quality low fat product with all non-dodgy ingredients listed.  Needless to say, in the English B&Bs, we did not eat the sausages.


The good news

We were surprised at the very large number of foods available in European supermarkets that are bio – namely, organic. (Although bio foods may still contain the bread preservative as cultured dextrose and annatto natural colouring.)

As ever, we were in awe of the marvellous artisanal food – and attitude to food - in Tuscany, although this does appear to be changing. While there, we very much enjoyed the moderate failsafe meals cooked by our friend who has contributed recipes over the years as Helen of Italy.  The exceptional freshness of all the ingredients made these meals extra special.  Handmade bio pasta, tiny lentils cooked with celery and garlic in water, fresh green beans and peas straight from the garden; iceberg lettuce, bean and shallot salad, and minestrone soup with potato, carrot, white dried beans, green beans, cabbage, celery and garlic, served with fresh soft white pecorino sheep cheese (made that day) and fresh handmade potato bread - the potato is grated raw into the bread mix. Molto delizioso.


We were also mightily impressed by much – though not all - of the food in France, where food is taken so very seriously. Simple meals like a plain omelette, green salad and bread were so good.

Most memorable meal

At Bibracte in France, a fascinating archeological museum adjoins the ruins of a big Roman-occupied Gaulish town where Julius Caesar himself wintered over in 31 BC. Next to the museum, a café called the Chaudron de Bibracte does Un Repas Gauloise - a Gaulish Meal, serving ingredients that archeologists say were available at that time.  Interestingly, the food of 2000 years ago was fairly mild and therefore not too bad for failsafers.  There were no additives of course, except for possible sulphites in the pear beer  -  the Romans used sulphites and knew even  then that sulphites caused asthma.

We ate:

  • barley semolina mixed with small lentils and baby peas, flavoured with the tiniest smear of a piece of prune and served with wholegrain bread


  • mildly salted duck – salt was very expensive then -  with salsify -a vegetable resembling parsnip but milder flavour, roulade with a mild leafy green vegetable and a separate mild myrtle sauce- the myrtle is apparently a French blueberry, nothing to do with our blueberries


  • baked apple of an old fashioned variety
  • fresh white cheese served with a little honey


  • pear beer, an unhopped beer made from barley and smoked over a pear wood fire

The meal was served  in tableware copied from that period  –  think eating roast duck with nothing but an iron dagger and you can get some idea of how much fun we had. All the foods were presented beautifully and served in small portions. As we know, salicylate-containing foods have more flavour so foods that are mild, sweet or bland are better for failsafers.  It seemed to us that the food of 2000 years ago was fairly mild.  Howard’s impression: “a lack of intense flavours and salt”. I’ve always thought the food industry has turned us into flavour junkies. This meal would seem to confirm that.

More information

How to avoid sulphites
Bread preservative
Additives around the world

 ‘Fermented wheat flour’ and ‘fermented wheat’

Coeliacs and gluten-intolerant people have an inflammation response to gluten proteins in wheat. There has been research on breaking down these proteins by fermentation, such as sourdough or other long fermentation time processes, or by more chemical means such as hydrolysis with external enzymes, to reduce the reactions from coeliacs and gluten-intolerant people.

The results have not been conclusive. Even moderate protein breakdown still seems to produce physical gut-wall changes in those who are sensitive. Complete protein breakdown reduces these but provides a highly processed ingredient without the technological and perhaps nutritional advantages of wheat. 

Perhaps to deliberately confuse the issue, ‘fermented wheat flour’ and ‘fermented wheat’ are also added as ingredients to breads as a mould inhibitor. These have been fermented with propioniibacteria to produce propionates which are chemically identical to the regulated additives 280-283 but without being required to be identified on the label as additives. For example

The bottom line: avoid all foods which list ‘cultured’ ingredients such as cultured wheat, rice, flour, corn, and those which list ‘fermented’ ingredients where it is suspected that they may be hidden additives.