Inside Our Food

E-numbers | Could We Live Without Them?

There’s a lot of mystery around E-numbers. You might have found yourself wondering, what exactly are they? Are they truly bad for me? Or even, are E-numbers really necessary for our food production? Read on to find out about the role E-numbers play in food production, and whether they're a risk to our health.

What are E-numbers?

Put simply, E-numbers are just codes for food additives. These code numbers can be created for any substances that fit the following three descriptions:

  1. Substances that are not normally consumed as food itself.
  2. Substances that are intentionally added to food for technological purposes during manufacturing, processing, preparing, treating, packaging, transporting and/or storing the food to achieve the end product you find in the store.
  3. Substances that may or may not have any nutritional value.

An E-number is given to a food additive after it is approved for use in food products sold in the EU. In fact, that’s where the ‘E’ in E-numbers comes from, simply standing for ‘Europe’. This allows for the additive to be recognised on ingredient lists across the EU, rather than using the name of the additive - which can change depending on the language.1 The system is also recognised globally; for international food additive numbers outside of the EU, the ‘E’ is dropped.

Each additive gets its own unique number - currently, there are over 300 E-numbers.2 If you’re curious to understand what the numbers themselves refer to, the categorisation of E-numbers is as follows:3

  1. The E100 series refers to food colours. 
  2. The E200 series refers to preservatives.
  3. The E300 series refers to antioxidants.

Why do we need food additives?

Food additives are meant to guarantee food safety and keep our food quality high. When you buy food products, you probably have a certain expectation with regard to the taste, quality, texture, presentation, cost, etc. of the product. Even though food additives are not a main ingredient, they play an important role in meeting consumer expectations. For example, ageing and processing of foods can affect their natural colour. During processing, food ingredients’ colour may change in a way that is different to consumer expectations or may simply look unappealing to consumers. The food industry compensates for this change by using a range of food colouring. This helps to compensate for colour losses, enhance naturally occurring colours and/or change the colour of a food.1

E-numbers can be used to add colour to food, such as yoghurts, gravy, and pickles, helping to define flavours. (Getty Images)

How do food additives work?

Food additives such as improving agents, emulsifiers, stabilisers, antioxidants, thickening agents, etc. are added to give certain physical qualities to food, including its texture. Other additives such as flavour enhancers, sweeteners - and even colours - change the flavour of food products. For example, the processing of strawberries can result in a loss of the red colour which consumers associate with fresh, delicious, nutritious strawberries. If something doesn’t meet their expectations, they will not purchase these strawberries. That’s why food colours are often added that give a red colour to, in this case, the strawberries. Other food additives, such as antioxidants and preservatives, increase the shelf-life of a food product.

Busting the myth: are E-numbers bad for you?

There is a widespread suspicion towards E-numbers these days. The reason? There are ingredients used as food colouring, stabilisers and preservatives which actually can have harmful effects on your health. However, not all E-numbers (or additives) are bad for you! In fact, E-numbers are strictly regulated - each substance that has been given an E-number must pass safety tests and has been carefully considered and approved for use.

On the one hand, E-numbers are frequently present in ultra-processed foods, which have been linked to a wide range of health problems such as cancer, type 2 diabetes and heart disease.4 A high intake of several emulsifier E-numbers has also been more directly linked to increased cardiovascular disease.5 But it would be unfair to say that all E-numbers are bad for you. Vinegar and lemon juice, for example, have both been given E-numbers - ingredients which are commonly found in our kitchens and can even be beneficial to our health.

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