Pret a Manger, the grab-and-go pioneer started by entrepreneur Julian Metcalfe in 1986, has been censured by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) relating to advertisements from the end of 2016 that claimed the company’s sandwiches were made without the inclusion of “obscure chemicals, additives and preservatives common to so much of the ‘prepared’ and ‘fast’ food on the market.”
The ASA held that advertisements from Pret, which included claims that the company was committed to “doing the right thing... naturally”, and labelled its products as “good natural food,” made with “fresh, natural ingredients,” were misleading. The ASA determined that, in the context of customers’ understanding of the term, “natural” was taken to mean that the product in question is “comprised of natural ingredients, e.g. ingredients produced by nature, not the work of man or interfered with by man.”
Specifically, the ASA focussed on the inclusion of additives known collectively as “E-numbers”:
We considered that because some of Pret A Manger’s foods contained E-numbers, which were artificial additives that had been produced by chemical processes, notwithstanding whether the additives were obscure, those foods did not constitute “natural” foods
The ASA’s decision refers directly to acknowledgements made by Pret in response to the original complaint, that its sandwich bread contained three E-numbers, which were used particularly to stabilise and emulsify dough to soften the crumb and prevent large air bubbles forming (E472e, E471), and as an antioxidant (E300).
The finding, however, raises some questions as to the broader understanding of E-numbers and their roles in food. Much like the hysteria that once surrounded MSG, E-numbers are often discussed in a way that more readily elicits mental images of ten-year-old McDonalds burgers than of “real” food.
E-numbers are the product of a simplified classification system, or code, which is regulated by the European Food Safety Authority — not the Advertising Standards Authority — of a range of compounds, many of which are naturally occurring, or derived (through industrial process) from organic sources. The “E” stands for “Europe,” by the way. Of the three in question, the first two are fatty acid derivatives of glycerol — from plant or animal sources — that are also naturally produced by the body when digesting fats, while the third, which is ascorbic acid, usually goes by a more common name: Vitamin C.
And so it goes: restaurant kitchens (and cocktail bars) across London — and, indeed, the world — serve up E-numbers to diners every night. Plant-derived stabilisers and thickeners — Guar gum (E412), Xanthan gum (E415), Agar and Carrageenan (E406 and E407), for example — are particularly popular in kitchens looking for vegetarian and vegan-friendly alternatives to gelatine or eggs. Citric acid (E330) is regularly used to increase acidity without adding the sugars and flavour compounds that accompany it in the juice of lemons or limes.
So Pret, then, while perhaps not the sort of company one would rush out to defend as a bastion of top-shelf food, is now on the receiving end of a judgement based on the interpretation by an advertising standards body (not a food standards body) of the level of understanding held by a comprehensively uninformed consumer. The same consumer who has learned to not want E-numbers in their food, but is happy to consume them daily in the name of a whole host of purported health benefits. The same consumer whose desire for a sandwich made on bread with no large air holes in it necessitates the use of those very E-numbers.
There is no argument here that Pret should not be aiming to bake its bread and produce its sandwiches without resorting to added stabilisers and preservatives. “Real bread” — made with just flour, water, salt, and a leavening agent — is just more delicious. Nor is there any assertion that the use of E-numbers in food production is an entirely benign and unremarkable process; certainly there are some to avoid, including those that have been linked to hyperactivity in children. There is, however, a need for better public understanding of what E-numbers actually are, and that their existence in and of itself is not necessarily an indication that a food is “unnatural.”
The Food Standards Agency lists all EU-approved food additives and their respective E-numbers. This website, from students and faculty at Wageningen University in the Netherlands has detailed information on each additive, its origins, functions, and any known side effects or dietary considerations related to consumption.