Ever pondered whether you can set fire to a cabbage? Neither had mother-of-six Tina DeMille, until she started to strip off the outer leaves of a cabbage purchased from her local supermarket — and was stopped in her tracks.
‘I was just about to start cooking when I thought: ‘Hang on a minute, it looks like plastic’,’ said the married hairdresser from Weston-super-Mare, Somerset.
So, taking a lighter, Mrs DeMille, 52, took the somewhat unusual step of attempting to set fire to one of the leaves.
The result? What she described as a burning ‘plastic’ smell and flame. She duly videoed her experiment and posted it on Facebook.
While Mrs DeMille did not return the cabbage to the Tesco from where it was purchased, she has been so rattled by her experience that she’s vowed to change the way she and her family eat for ever.
‘It must have been treated with something to make it smell like that,’ she said. ‘It’s really concerning and made me wonder how other fruit and vegetables are treated — we now eat only organic and are getting an allotment to grow our own.’
With Tesco declining to comment on the ‘combustible’ cabbage, there may be those who are tempted to repeat Mrs DeMille’s experiment.
But, as the Mail discovered, don’t expect fireworks: two similar cabbages purchased by this newspaper failed even to smoulder.
Nevertheless, it begs the question as to how fruit and vegetables sold by the supermarkets are treated before they hit the shelves.
Because that ‘fresh’ shiny apple or bag of lettuce may have undergone a battery of pre-sale processes.
These include chlorine washes, plastic-like waxes (which could be the reason for the flammability) and chemical treatments, not to mention high-tech packaging designed to alter the air in which they are packed.
And, surprisingly, under current consumer laws, they often don’t have to be mentioned on the labelling.
That’s because they are considered to be processing aids, rather than counted as added ‘ingredients’.
spokesperson for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs says that, under EU marketing rules, the only treatments that have to be notified on packaging are those applied post-harvest to citrus fruits.
To find out more, the Mail posed a series of questions to the country’s leading supermarkets about the fresh produce they sell and the specific treatments it has undergone. All declined to comment, referring us to industry body the British Retail Consortium (BRC).
‘The safety and quality of food is a priority for retailers, alongside the provision of accurate labelling information,’ said a BRC spokesperson.
‘All of the processing aids highlighted are used by the food industry to either enhance food safety or significantly reduce spoilage and minimise food waste.’
Here, with the aid of investigative journalist and author Joanna Blythman, we highlight the secret tricks and treatments of the fruit and veg trade . . .
Oranges, lemons, apples, mangoes and even some vegetables such as turnips can be treated with artificial waxes.
The primary purpose of this is to reduce moisture loss and increase the product’s longevity.
Waxing may also improve the visual look of the fruit or vegetable.
Many fruits produce wax naturally — an apple picked from a tree can be buffed up with a rub on your shirtsleeve — but this may be removed or depleted during the cleaning and packaging process.
To replace it, so-called food-grade waxes are added — either by spraying or dipping.
These waxes include synthetic polyethylene waxes (often made from petrol by-products) and natural waxes such as carnauba, derived from the leaves of a palm, and shellac, a resin produced by a beetle.
Supermarkets have to reveal how citrus fruit has been treated. For example, in tiny writing on the label on a string bag of five Tesco oranges, the following is stated: ‘Post harvest treatment Fludioxonil, Imazalil, Propiconazole, and wax (E914 and E904).’ The chemicals are fungicides and the E numbers refer to polyethylene and shellac.
Waxes are not broken down in the human stomach and pass through the digestive system.
Alternatively, washing the fruit in hot water can help remove any added waxes.
‘Supermarkets have groomed us to expect fruit and vegetables to look shiny, which is very rarely their natural state,’ says Joanna Blythman, whose book Swallow This (published by Fourth Estate) lifts the lid on the food industry’s darkest secrets.
‘These waxes often contain small amounts of fungicides, such as imazalil. Personally, I’d rather not eat or touch these toxic chemicals at all, let alone in what regulators assure us are ‘safe doses’.
‘Soapy water will wash off some but not all of these chemicals — but why on earth should we have to wash fresh produce to remove potentially harmful chemicals?’