What's the lowdown on E numbers?

It sometimes seems that barely a day goes by without yet another report saying that Additives (or ‘E numbers’ ) are bad for us and especially for our children. But are they really that terrible? Supernanny expert Yvonne Wake explains all.......

We're often told that E numbers are terrible, but total disapproval may be a little excessive. However, we do need to become more clued-up about what they are for, and look at whether or not we really need to eat the food products which contain them.

A very long time ago, before food was bought in shops, our food came from the land and farms. Back then food additives weren’t usually necessary because we only ate the food that we could grow, and did so on the day it was harvested. Today, however, there are so many people in the world (especially in the big cities) that food is now especially grown to provide for everyone. Food has to survive transport from all over the world and it can sometimes take up to six weeks from the moment it is picked from the field to its arrival on a supermarket shelf.

It’s true that some food additives have been used since very early times, with salt the great preserver of meats and fish and saffron also used to make food appear yellow. But although the concept of ‘adding’ something to the food is not totally new, in today’s society so much is added that we have become increasingly suspicious of all additives.

So, what exactly are all those additives?

There are 2,500 additives currently in use (with more appearing each year). They are chemicals which can be natural or man made, and are classified with E numbers within Europe (the ‘E’ is for Europe). This classification has to go through many rigorous stages to be certified and legalised for use.

Additives are not normally consumed as a food itself, but used in foods to carry out certain roles. Their role is to preserve the freshness of food as it travels around the world, as well as to improve nutritional value as it relates to taste, texture and colour. Some food additives help to keep food for longer, stop mould and bacteria growing and prevent the food from contaminating and poisoning us. Without food additives many of the foods we take for granted just would not be around. All processed foods have additives and everything in a packet is processed. Avoiding processed food would be a way of avoiding additives!

That said, some foods contain many more additives than others and checking the label first will give you the opportunity to choose foods which contain less additives, even though that may reduce the shelf life or its sell by date. A good example is the Innocent brand of ‘smoothies for kids’, which contain NO additives at all. They contain 100% pure fruit ‘and absolutely nothing else’. These smoothies are able to withstand the time and stay fresh because they are produced using light pasteurisation (like milk). This is a process of heating liquids to a certain temperature in order to destroy viruses and certain harmful organisms. They do need to be consumed on the day you open them, but hey, what’s wrong with that?

Contrary to what we read and hear, most food additives are harmless and natural in substance, and even though scientific research has not come up with any specific reasons why food additives should be banned, it is still prudent to look at lists of additives at the back of food products. The main criticism of additives is that they are suspected of causing allergies; this is seen in some studies as it relates to colourings. Remember when Rowntrees removed all the artificial colourings from the box of Smarties in 2006? This was in response to consumers concerns about allergies. Also, if additives are consumed in large quantities at one time, they could poison the consumer, for example, ten cans of a certain fizzy drink each day. Finally, some additives are known to be carcinogenic (cancer causing) and recent studies into E211 Sodium Benzoate when mixed with vitamin C (in fizzy drinks) are of much concern. According to reports however, the average person is in no danger from additives providing they do not consume them in extremely large quantities. See the list of additives to give you a better understanding of what they are for.

Additives contained in foods What they are for
Antioxidants E300 – E321
Vitamin C, also known as ascorbic acid is one of the most frequently used antioxidant. This is an important ingredient and safe.
Makes food last longer by preventing fats and certain vitamins from combining with oxygen in the air – this is why food goes off.
Preservatives E200 – E1105
Salt, vinegar and sugar are also used to preserve. Salt and sugar in large amounts are not good.
Again, keeps food for longer. Stops mould and bacteria growing, without which we would be poisoned.
Sweeteners E420 – E595
Aspartame and Saccharin are the main types of sweeteners – very small amounts create very sweet taste and are controversial – look them up.
Used instead of sugar in such products as fizzy drinks, as well as yoghurts.
Flavour Enhancers and Flavouring E600 – E650
Monosodium Glutamate (E621) is added to most soups, sauces and sausages. Again controversial.
These bring out the flavour in savoury foods and sweet foods.
Emulsifiers, Stabilisers, thickness and gelling agents E322 – E1103 These help to mix ingredients together that would usually separate, i.e. oil and water. They give foods a consistent texture. Gelling agents are used to make jam mainly
Colours E100 – E180
The most infamous colour is E102 Tartrazine – this is linked to hyperactivity in children and has been banned by some manufacturers.
Used to keep colour consistent during the cooking process as well as replacing lost colour in foods through cooking process. Colours are also used to make a product look for attractive!


Does this mean we can ignore the news reports and relax? No, we must always look at the additive list and if a food contains more additives than actual ingredients then definitely look at what those additives are.

The fact is that even though they have passed the test for ‘E’ certification, we should still know what we are consuming as it relates to additives and even though the long list of additives are seen by the government as safe and have been certified and tested, a lack of in-depth research means that you should remain prudent. If you find that most of your meals are from processed packets, then your ‘additive’ consumption will be high. Perhaps it’s time for a change?

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