What Are E Numbers?
Quite simply E-numbers are the code given to food additives. These food additives are deemed safe and are officially approved for use in food across the EU. In the E100 series, you will find colours (such as E150 caramel and E162 beetroot red). Preservatives are E200s, such as potassium sorbate, which is E202, and antioxidants are in the E300 series.
What Are They Used For?
E numbers are commonly found on food labels throughout the European Union and in New Zealand and Australia and less often in North America. The numbers are a way of identifying additives incorporated into consumables. The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has the ultimate responsibility for assessing and approving these additives. The single unified list of E numbers was first started in 1962 and related only to colours. Since then the list has grown to feature preservatives (1964), antioxidants (1970) and emulsifiers, stabilisers, thickeners and gelling agents (1974).
Are All E Numbers Bad for You?
Not at all. In Europe, there are rigorous safety assessment and approval procedures that all food additives must go through in order that they can comply with European Union (EU) legislation. Where a food additive has an E number allocated to it, this demonstrates that it has passed safety tests and is approved throughout the EU. In the case that any new scientific data throws doubt onto the use of a food additive, the EFSA will review the case.
Food additives are included either by name or by an E number in the ingredient list that you see on the back of a consumable product. Usually, the ingredient list will also tell whether the number is a colour or a preservative etc.
Types of Additives
Any food that is made using fats or oils will more than likely contain antioxidants. Antioxidants help food last longer as they prevent fats, oils and certain vitamins from combining with the oxygen in the air that causes food to lose colour and become rancid. This is what makes food appear or taste 'off'. Antioxidants are found in all sorts of processed foods, particularly pies etc. Surprisingly, vitamin C, which is also called ascorbic acid or E300, is one of the most widely used antioxidants.
Without preservatives, food cannot be kept for very long before it 'goes off'. Using preservatives allows manufacturers, stores and yourself to keep food for longer. Any food that has a long shelf-life is more than likely to contain preservatives unless it is canned or frozen. Foods such as bacon, ham, corned beef or other 'cured' meats tend to be treated with nitrite (E249 to E252) during the curing process while dried fruit is often treated with sulphur dioxide (E220) in order to prevent mould or bacteria growth. Look carefully and you will find that many traditional preservatives such as sugar, salt and vinegar are also still used to preserve some foods.
Emulsifiers, Stabilisers, Gelling Agents and Thickeners
Emulsifiers such as Lecithin's (E322), help combine ingredients together that would normally separate (think of oil and water) and stabilisers help to stop these ingredients from separating again. Emulsifiers and stabilisers help to lend food a consistent texture and are used in foods such as low-fat spreads.
The most common gelling agent is pectin (E440), which is used in jams. Gelling agents change the consistency of food and thickeners help make food thicker.
Flavour enhancers supposedly bring out the flavour of food without adding their own flavour. The best-known flavour enhancer is monosodium glutamate (E621), known as MSG, which is added to processed foods, particularly soups and sauces. You will find flavour enhancers in a wide range of savoury snacks, ready meals and condiments.
Sweeteners are thought to be healthier than sugar because they are lower in calories and better for your teeth so they can be found in many sweets and fizzy drinks. Sweeteners such as aspartame (E951), saccharin (E954) and acesulfame-K (E950) are much sweeter than sugar and very small amounts are used, whereas bulk sweeteners, such as sorbitol (E420), have the same approximate sweetness as sugar and are used like sugar.
Natural colours are often lost during food processing and storage and so the colour is replaced to produce consistency in products. Commonly used colours include caramel (E150a), used in products such as gravy and soft drinks; and curcumin (E100), a yellow colour extracted from turmeric roots.
The EFSA is keen to ensure that colours do not compromise food safety. However, some colours, commonly used in children's sweets and drinks have been shown to have a detrimental effect on children's behaviour.
What Are the Dangers of Eating Food with Bad E Numbers?
Artificial food additives and preservatives can cause children to be disruptive and many children are very sensitive to additives and artificial chemicals in their diet causing widespread problems. There are known links between additives and increased incidences of eczema, asthma and allergies in selected groups of children who consume food and drink with high levels of additives and artificial chemicals in their diet. Certain additives, such as sulphites and benzoates, can also cause allergic reactions.
Which E Numbers Should You Avoid?
Certain combinations of artificial food colours have been associated with deteriorating behaviour in children, namely:
Children that demonstrate signs of hyperactivity (where the child is overactive, cannot concentrate and acts on sudden impulses without thinking) or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD which is linked to learning difficulties and behavioural problems) should avoid these additives as this could help improve their behaviour. Parents should check the labels of food and drink. Since July 2010, colours must be declared in the list of ingredients as 'colour', plus either their name or E number. Where the six colours listed above are used the label must give a specific warning saying that the colour 'may have an adverse effect on activity and attention in children'. Manufacturers are being encouraged to find alternatives to these colours.
Where Can I Find a List of E Numbers?
For a comprehensive list of E numbers search online for relevant websites.
Updated: February 22, 2021 CET