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Food additives and E numbers

Understanding food labeling


‘E numbers’ are codes for natural and artificial food additives that appear in food labeling. The coding was set up and is used by the European Union. The ‘E’ stands for Europe and appear on food labelling that is assessed and approved by the European Food Safety Authority. The E code that appears on your label has been approved and is safe to be consumed by this body. According to the EU all food additives must be clearly labelled on the list of ingredients as an E code or by name. The common or colloquial understanding of ‘E’ number is seen as a negative term when describing food additives contained on some food labels. However, the ‘E’ code can stand for natural additives such as vitamins e.g vitamin C is E300.

What are Food Additives?

Food additives are ingredients that are added to food for reasons such as: to make them last longer, give them colour or to sweeten them. Here is a list of the most common food additives you will see on labels:
  • Antioxidants: Oxidation reactions happen when foods are exposed to air causing them to turn brown or go rancid. Antioxidants slow the rate of oxidation extending the shelf life of food. Example: Mayonnaise, soups or sauces. Eg. Citric acid(E330) is used in tins, cheeses to stop them going rancid.

  • Colours: By adding colour to food you make it more appealing to the consumer. Food colouring can be natural in origin such as Curcumin ( E100) which is made from turmeric and is used in curry, fats and oils or processed cheese. And controversial artificial colouring such as Tartazine (E102) which is a synthetic dye which sometimes appears in ready meals.

  • Emulsifiers/Stabilisers: Foods that are a mix of oil and water will separate without and emulsifier e.g mayonnaise. They keep mixtures of foods ‘stable’ giving it texture and structure and help prevent food turning rancid. Pectin (E440) is very a common gelling agent used in jam.

  • Flavour Enhancers: Flavours are added to food to enhance the taste and are often imitation of the flavour of the food. Foods like ice cream, meat substitutes, natural yogurt would often be tasteless and unappealing without flavouring. There are natural flavours made from animal and vegetable sources and chemically made flavours such as monosodium glutamate (E621) which is used in processed food.

  • Preservatives: Preservatives keep food safe for longer and stop fungus and bacteria growing that will spoil food. There are traditional ways of preserving food such as smoking fish and meats, and factory methods such as freezing, canning, pickling and drying that remove the factors that would allow mould or bacteria to grow. Chemical preservatives like potassium and sodium nitrate (E249 and E250) are synthetic additives used for many foods including meats that make them last longer.

  • Sweeteners: Sugar is one of the most important flavouring substance and has been around since people began eating honey from 2000 BC! However sugar is controversial as it causes all sorts of health problems. Therefore alternatives to sugar like artificial sweeteners were developed to reduce the amount of sugar needed in food product but still provide sweet taste like Aspartame (E 951) used in slimming soda drinks like Diet Coke.

Good versus Bad E numbers

There have been lots of controversy over the usage of food additives that have been linked to all sorts of health and behavioural problems however are still deemed safe by EU legislation, making it confusing for the consumer. One of the big stories around monosodium glutamate led to clinical trials to investigate whether it was deemed dangerous yet researchers could not find any link to disease or side effects. However, regardless of trials and assurance of safety from food bodies it is generally accepted that a lot chemically made food additives are deemed ‘unhealthy’ by the public opinion.

Without many food additives, such as preservatives that help eliminate bacteria, food will become quickly rancid and poisonous making it difficult to produce and sell globally. The balance lies in whether or not you are buying food that has been heavily processed or contains sugars and colorings that are detriment to health of you and your children.

Although not strictly termed ‘good’ some E numbers are better than others and are derived from natural sources.
A great way to identify which E numbers are what is by educating yourself and your family on food labeling and by using apps that help you discover quickly what is in your food before you buy.