Many nutrition experts advise against eating anything with an E number in it and E numbers have been linked to everything from hyperactivity and mood disorders to an increased risk of heart disease and cancer but there are E numbers and E numbers and some may actually be good for you.
Throughout history substances have been added to food to enhance flavour and colour and slow spoilage. Today food additives are carefully regulated, must satisfy strict purity criteria and manufacturers must prove a technological need before they can be used. The use of food additives is uniform across the EU and all approved additives are given an E catalogue number (E for Europe). There are around 300 approved food additives and they are found in around 50% of supermarket foods. A full list of additives in the EU is published by the Food Standards Agency (United Kingdom) but the table below gives a general overview.
|E number range||Subranges||Description|
Blues and violets
Browns and blacks
Gold and others
phenols & formates
|300-399 ANTIOXIDANTS & ACIDITY REGULATORS||300-305306-309310-319
|Ascorbates (Vit C)Tocopherol (Vit E)Gallates
Citrates and tartrates
Malates and adipates
Succinates & others
|400-499 THICKENERS, STABALIZERS AND EMULSIFIERS||400-409410-419420-429
|AlginatesNatural gumsOther natural agents
|500-599 PH REGULATORS||500-509510-519520-529
|Mineral acid & basesChlorides / sulphidesSulphates /hydroxides
Alkali metal compds
|WaxesSynthetic glazesImproving agents
|1100-1599CHEMICALS||New chemicals that don’t fit into classification scheme|
Although all of them have been rigorously tested there is still a question mark over some of them and some are banned in other countries around the world. The main ones to watch out for are :
Tartrazine (E102): a synthetic yellow azo dye found in fizzy drinks, ice cream, sweets, chewing gum, jam and yoghurt. Banned in Norway and Austria.
Sunset yellow (E110): another yellow azo dye found in orange jelly, apricot jam, packet soups, tinned fish and hot chocolate mixes. Banned in Norway and Finland.
Carmoisine (E122): a synthetic red azo dye found in jams, sweets, sauces, yoghurts, jellies and pudding mixes. It is banned in Japan, Norway, Sweden and the US.
Allure red (E129): Orange-red color used in sweets, drinks and condiments, medications and cosmetics. Introduced in the early eighties to replace amaranth which was considered not safe due to conflicting test results; allura red has also been connected with cancer in mice; banned in Denmark, Belgium, France, Germany, Switzerland, Sweden, Austria and Norway
Ponceau 4R (E124): a synthetic red dye found in dessert toppings, jelly, canned fruits, salami and seafood dressings. Banned in Norway and the US.
Quinoline yellow (E104): Used in lipsticks hair products, colognes; also in a wide range of medications; cause dermatitis; banned in Australia, USA and Norway
Sodium Benzoate (E211): an antibacterial and antifungal preservative that can also be used to disguise the taste of poor quality food. Has been shown to aggravate asthma symptoms particularly when ingested in conjunction with tartrazine and reacts with vitamin C to form carcinogenic benzenes. Watch out for sodium benzoate in soft drinks that advertise added Vitamin C.
Sulphites (E220-229): Sulphur dioxide and other sulphite compounds are used to stop the browning of foods and are often used in processed of dried fruits. Have been linked with dizziness, nerve problems, blurred vision and reduced thiamine (Vitamin B1) levels in the body. Have been linked to arousal/hyperactivity in individuals on the autistic spectrum.
Sodium Nitrates (E240-259): Sodium nitrite is added to most packaged meat products to stop it greying. When combined with your saliva and digestive enzymes, sodium nitrite forms nitrosamines, which are so toxic to biological systems that they are actually used to induce cancer in laboratory rats. In humans, the consumption of sodium nitrite has been strongly correlated with brain tumors, leukemia, and cancers of the digestive tract. Sodium Nitrates are found in bacon, ham, pepperoni, and other packaged meat products.
Monosodium Glutamate (MSG): Glutamic acid is a naturally occurring amino acid and MSG is a sodium salt derived from it. In the body glutamate is involved in cell signalling. MSG is an excitotoxin, an ingredient known to cause damage by overexciting nerves. MSG can cause headaches, flushing, heartburn, chest pain or numbness in sensitive individuals and is also known to damage to developing nerve cells in children and increase insulin production. Glutamate is found in small quantities naturally in kelp, Parmesan cheese, peas, tomatoes, grapes and plums but it appears that the body can process these amounts safely. MSG is found in a lot of processed foods as it stimulates the taste buds. The amount of MSG is often hidden as it may be listed as yeast extract, autolyzed vegetable protein, textured soy protein concentrate, carrageenan, maltodextrin, disodium isosinate. Modified corn starch, hydrolyzed vegetable protein or E620-629.
Aspartame (E951) has been implicated in nearly 100 different health problems including hyperactivity, aggression, anxiety, depression and migraine. Asparatate is also a excitotoxin and in large quantities it has also been shown to shrink developing brain cells.