{Germany} What’s in your food?

February 10, 2014

Germany

Do you know what’s in your food? There’s a museum in Germany that does! The ‘Zusatzstoffmuseum’ (Additives Museum) was founded in 2008 by the ‘Hamburger Lebensmittelstiftung’ (Hamburg Food Foundation) with the aim of educating people about additives in food – why they are used, where concealed additives may be lurking, and what the alternatives are. It’s a very fascinating topic, though be warned – a visit here may put you off eating for the rest of the day!

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Additives are not a modern invention. We’re all familiar with pickling food in vinegar. On the more adventurous side of things, in Ancient Rome wine was apparently made sweeter through the addition of led! Frogs and deadly nightshade have been known as colour enhancers in the past. Luckily for us, laws were introduced to restrict the use of additives and to ensure a certain level of purity. Just within the entrance of the museum, there is a timeline of significant dates in the history of additives, such as the passing of the first German food law in 1879, the first official use of the term ‘Zusatzstoffe’ in 1974, or the introduction of the European food law in 1996.

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Armed with this background knowledge, you start your visit. The museum is fairly small, but packed full of information. You start off with an overview of E-numbers (the E stands for ‘Europe’ – other continents have different systems), substances that are used as food additives to improve e.g. smell, taste, look or consistency. While often used as a pejorative term for artificial food additives, E-numbers just indicate the chemical components, which can also occur naturally in foods, such as vitamins.

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E-numbers are divided into different categories, including colourings, preservatives, antioxidants, acidity regulators, thickeners, stabilisers, emulsifiers, acidity regulators, anti-caking agents, flavour enhancers, sweeteners and others. You can tell which category an additive belongs to by its initial number e.g. numbers starting with E1 are colourings, and E3 indicates antioxidants and acidity regulators. There are some gaps in the numbering system, where additives have been discovered unsuitable for human consumption and subsequently removed – their number is not allowed to be reassigned.

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Food additives are often associated with unhealthy foods such as sweets, soft drinks, and ready meals, but avoiding them is not as easy as cutting neon coloured food or pre-packaged dinners. Many additives don’t actually need to be declared, and even organic foods contain additives. After the initial introduction, the exhibition moves on to cover various different food groups and types of additives. As I learned during my visit, there may only be 360 E-numbers, but there are tens of thousands of additives! Flavourings, of which there are over ten thousand, come under this for example. There’s a nice little “sniff and guess” interactive to introduce you to the world of flavourings, which are divided into natural, nature-identical and artifical substances. I learned that flavourings can be re-created from wood shavings or fungi (both natural products!), and that only 40% of the world’s raspberry yoghurt production can be flavoured with real raspberries. There simply aren’t enough raspberries to go round. Some yoghurts just contain flavourings and no berries at all, while others may contain cheaper berries for texture but the flavourings make you think they’re raspberries. I haven’t been able to eat any flavoured yoghurt since my visit to the museum.

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There’s also the so-called ‘carry over effect’, where the food doesn’t contain additives, but the packaging does – e.g. the insides of milk cartons may be coated with additives to extend shelf life, but as long as the milk itself doesn’t contain any they don’t have to be declared. There’s no way of knowing. Or e.g. when fruit is sprayed with wax to preserve it, it also doesn’t need to be declared, though mostly you can tell by touch.

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The exhibition ends with a look at possible risks and side effects, and a section about ‘functional additives’, where vegetable or animal substances are used to act as additives. All in all, it was a very interesting and eye opening visit, very much enhanced by the guided tour I joined in. There are also several videos throughout the museum that you can watch for further information. Unfortunately the museum is entirely in German and there were no English speaking tours available when I visited, but if you are interested it’s always worth asking in advance if that has changed. I promise you, after a visit here you will never look at food the same away again!

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By the way, the museum is not easy to find. It’s tucked away on the site of a large wholesale market where the offices of the Hamburger Lebensmittelstiftung used to be. If you’re arriving on foot, you enter via this turnstile gate (not suitable for wheelchairs or prams) on the east side of the site and ring the bell:

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You’ll know you’re on the right track when you see this – just follow the arrows.

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You can also arrive by car via a gate on the north side and park on site (see map). The museum is open Wednesdays to Sundays, with late night openings on Thursdays. Admission is 3.50 Euro, with discounts available. Groups can book guided tours in advance for an extra fee, or there are free tours for individual visitors on Thursdays at 6pm and on weekends at 3pm. All opening times, prices and other information can also be found on the museum’s website.

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