Citric panic

Beginning in 1976 a pseudoscientific pamphlet spread like wildfire across Europe, stating that many common food additives caused cancer – including cellulose and citric acid.

Villejuif Leaflet
Uploaded by Kimon Berlin; original author is anonymous / CC0

The original list was a typewritten compilation of additive numbers with the all-caps captions TOXIQUE and SUSPECT attached. The numbers – from the European Union’s “E number” system of additive categorization – must have looked inherently suspicious It’s not easy to connect the numbers to actual food… even when the numbers do represent completely harmless and natural substances. And many of the substances on this list were neither toxic nor carcinogenic.

Take E330. A most sinister chemical brew, E330 sounds like the kind of thing you’d see on a toxicology report or an autopsy report. Except that E330 is actually citric acid: present in oranges and lemons and all through the human body (the Krebs cycle, which helps to turn carbs, fat, and protein into energy, is also known as the citric acid cycle). I can fairly safely say that citric acid is not going to kill you. Ditto cellulose (E460), which also made it onto some versions of the list.

In the years between 1976 and 1986, it is estimated that seven million people saw this pamphlet. Photocopies were distributed by hand, some credulous newspapers picked it up, and at least one book published the flyer’s ridiculous claims. It set off a panic in France, and then spread to Britain, Germany, Italy, and further. There are probably still versions of this pamphlet being distributed in the wild.

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