We have all heard it before, E numbers are: “bad for you”, “artificial”, and “make children hyperactive”. But, is that really the case?
What is an E number?
It’s a standardised code for food additives so that you can recognise them when reading food/drink labels. It essentially means the additive has passed safety tests and is approved for use within the European Union. The code begins with an ‘E’ followed by a 3-digit number, where the prefix ‘E’ stands for ‘Europe’ and the number refers to a specific set of EU rules specifying which products are allowed to include the additive and the acceptable amount that can be consumed. This coding system was initially only used in the European Union, but the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand are beginning to adopt this as well (except they don’t all use the prefix ‘E’).
Why are E numbers used?
There are many different reasons, such as wanting to change or enhance the colour, extend the shelf-life, to thicken, to regulate the acidity, to enhance the flavour, to sweeten it, and some E numbers also represent antibiotics (fed to animals to prevent infections). You can find an exhaustive list of EU-approved E numbers here (https://www.food.gov.uk/business-guidance/eu-approved-additives-and-e-numbers). Food additives are not a modern invention; traditional products like wine and champagne contain sulphites, and cured meats (like bacon and sausage), processed fish (like pickled herring, crustaceans) and cheeses (hard and semi-hard cheeses like Gouda) contain sodium nitrite (E250), potassium nitrite (E249) and nitrates (E251 and E252) which inhibit the growth of heat-resistant lethal bacteria that can cause fatal botulism, whilst also improving colour and flavour.
The bad side to E numbers:
Owing to the high consumption of the foods I just mentioned, research has been carried out to evaluate our exposure to nitrates and nitrites and whether they are a health hazard. But this is made difficult by the lack of information on the levels of these additives in foods, and by the realisation that even our drinking water, fruit and vegetables naturally contain these additives. However, it should be noted that nitrites found in plant foods versus those found in other products like cheeses and meats have different effects; plant antioxidants promote the conversion of nitrites into health-promoting compounds (check out my previous post on Beetroot to find out more!) whilst the proteins and heme found in meats (and whether you fry/bake them), for example, promote the conversion of nitrites into cancer-causing compounds such as nitrosamines. Whilst some studies have found that we are exposed to these additives at levels which are below the acceptable daily intake, others have shown that children (2-6 years of age) may be at a higher risk of surpassing these levels due to their lower body weight (1-3). Whether such levels over a short period of years has a physiological and long-term impact is unclear, but efforts should be made to reduce the use of these potential hazardous additives and to find safer alternatives. The UK Foods Standards Agency (FSA) funded a research study led by the University of Southampton in 2007 that revealed the potential association between a handful of E numbers (specifically colorants) and hyperactivity in children (4). These now-called “Southampton Six” include tartrazine (E102), sunset yellow (E110), quinoline yellow (E104), ponceau 4R (E124), azorubine (E122), allura red (E129) and sodium benzoate (E211). This study led to the FSA recommending these additives be removed from products, and it is now a requirement for any items that do still contain these colorants to have a warning on their labels. The good side to E numbers:
Most E numbers are, in fact, natural and completely safe. Did you know vitamin C has its own E number (E300), as does oxygen (E948) and paprika (E160c)? One common colorant used is extracted from red beetroot – if you haven’t read my previous article on red beetroot then head over there now to delve into how a colorant like this packs a punch for your health (in the good sense). That dark red/purple colour of beetroot is called E162 in the food, cosmetic and pharmaceutical industries. It is the perfect natural, non-toxic food colorant!
Perhaps it is time that the coding system for additives is split in two: natural and risk-free versus synthetic with unconfirmed health effects.
Taking precaution by limiting or avoiding certain additives can be entirely justified (such as the Southampton Six and the nitrates/nitrites), but you can now walk away with the knowledge that many additives are not only safe but also prevent food wastage by extending shelf-life, whilst also improving the taste, feel, and look of our food.
Demonising unknowns is easy. But here at LUHV Drinks, we aim to empower you, our consumers, so you can make informed decisions about what you put in your bodies.
1. Sprong, R. C., Niekerk, E. M. and Beukers, M. H. (2016) Intake assessment of the food additives nitrites (E 249 and E 250) and nitrates (E 251 and E 252). RIVM Letter report 2016-0208. https://rivm.openrepository.com/rivm/bitstream/10029/620857/1/2016-0208.pdf
2. EFSA Panel on Food Additives and Nutrient Sources added to Food (ANS), Mortensen, A. et al (2017) Re-evaluation of potassium nitrite (E 249) and sodium nitrite (E 250) as food additives. EFSA J. 15(6):4786.
3. EFSA Panel on Food Additives and Nutrient Sources added to Food (ANS), Mortensen, A. et al. (2017) Re-evaluation of sodium nitrate (E 251) and potassium nitrate (E 252) as food additives. EFSA J. 15(6):4787.
4. McCann, D. et al. (2007) Food additives and hyperactive behaviour in 3-year-old and 8/9-year-old children in the community: a randomised, double-blinded, placebo-controlled trial. The Lancet. DOI:10.1016/S0140-6736(07)61306-3).