The couch potato population of the UK failed to be shocked to the core by revelations in early September 2011 that two of its favourite takeaway meals contained not only high levels of food colourings, but also saturated fat and salt levels far above the recommended daily amounts. The BBC gave heavy coverage to the news that Chinese takeaway favourite sweet and sour chicken, and faux-Indian dish chicken tikka masala, could be seriously damaging the nation’s health.
Researchers conducted a survey of 223 takeaway restaurants, and found high levels of food colourings which are controlled in the UK due to a suspected link with hyperactivity in children. E110 (sunset yellow), E129 (allura red), E102 (tartrazine) and E124 (ponceau 4R) were all found to be present in high doses in five of the sauces and dishes tested.
It almost goes without saying that this is a non-story, of course. Not only were the ‘illegal’ levels of food colourings found in just 2.5% of the takeaways sampled across England and Wales, but they are not actually illegal. The Food Standards Agency has called for a voluntary ban on the colourings because of the suspected link with hyperactivity, but that’s not quite the same thing (it is worth mentioning that one Chinese dish did contain levels of colourings which were high enough to be illegal). In addition, hyperactive children are not really the target market for Indian or Chinese takeaways, which focus mostly on single professionals in their 20s and 30s.
And finally, in the specific case of chicken tikka masala, a dish which consists of chicken fried in clarified butter, is anyone really surprised that it is likely to contain 116% of a person’s recommended daily intake of saturated fat, or 92% of their salt allowance? That a serving of sweet and sour chicken contains 75% of their daily sugar intake (the clue is in the word ‘sweet’)?
Takeaway meals such as this are eaten in the UK mostly as an occasional treat, weekly at most. There are some people who will happily eat takeaway food every night, but they’re the very people least likely to take any notice of this survey.
More worrying was the fact that traces of nuts were found in 20% of ‘nut-free’ tikka masala dishes – a potentially fatal lapse in standards.
The recommendation from the Local Government Association that local authorities should work with “ethnic kitchens” is patronising at best, however, given that many such takeaways are run by second or third generation British subjects. Improving the healthiness of restaurant food is a noble aim, but if researchers were to run a survey of non-ethnic UK cafes and check the salt and saturated fat levels of a traditional english breakfast, the results would be even more shocking. This is a government-endorsed body blow to takeaway restaurants already struggling with economic pressures, which employs a huge number of ethnic minority workers who struggle to find work in other industries due to this kind of patronising nonsense.