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Cocktail of E Numbers

Updated: Nov 21, 2022

How often do you pay attention to additives and preservatives in foods?

I must admit I started digging into this topic when I first noticed an allergic skin reaction to cured meat. Preservatives and flavour enhancers have been subject to serious criticism, but I underestimated their potential harm until my personal tolerance dropped to a level when I had to make changes to my diet. I also discovered to my surprise that not all E numbers are bad; some additives are actually safe anti-oxidants, but it’s important to understand exact food label nomenclature to differentiate them from damaging chemicals.

Almost all packaged foods contain some kind of additives and preservatives to prevent the growth of bacteria and fungi, to enhance favour, taste and to extend shelf life.

Essentially there are two main sources of dangerous or threatening additives. First type includes those added during the processing operations: colouring, preservatives, flavour enhancers, sweeteners and processing agents. Second source is related to packaging, storing and handling of foods. People may react to one or several additives, and it’s very difficult to know which chemical exactly causes a reaction, because signs of intolerance and sensitivity often come out one or two days later. The reaction to food additives may also build up in the body over time, especially with chronic exposure.

All food preservatives and additives are regulated in the EU. They are classified by type or E numbers with the “E” standing for “Europe”. Countries outside of Europe have different regulations but they use the same numbers whether the additive is approved in Europe or not.

For example, food additive 103 alkanet (red-dye) is not approved in Europe, but is used in Australia and NZ.

Some commonly used additives are listed below:

Colouring agents include colour stabilisers, colour retention agents and colour fixatives. They may be extracted from natural sources or synthetically produced.

Based on reported studies, below is the list of potentially harmful colorants, particularly for children. Foods and drinks, containing one of these 6 artificial colours, also known as “Southampton mix” below, must carry a warning on packaging ‘May have an adverse effect on activity and attention in children’.

E102 Tarrazine. Hyperactivity, asthma, rushes

E124 Ponceai 4R. Allergy Intolerance

E110 Sunset yellow. Gastric upset, allergy

E122 Camoisine. Allergy Intolerance

E104 Quinoline yellow. Hyperactivity, asthma, rushes

E129 Allura red. Some evidence of hyperactivity

Preservatives are defined as substances capable of inhibiting or retarding the growth of micro-organisms.

Class I preservatives refer to naturally occurring substances, for example, salt, honey and wood smokes.

Class II preservatives are synthetically manufactured. Most commonly used preservatives in cured meats are nitrates and nitrites (E-numbers: 249-252) to prevent the development of bacteria (including the one causing botulism poisoning), fungi and mold.

Sulphites (E-number: 220-228) are found in wine, but also in dried fruits and some ciders. They are also common antimicrobial preservatives, added during the fermentation process to prevent acidification, enhance color, and remove fermentation by-products such as acetaldehyde. Although sulphur dioxide is typically well tolerated in a majority of the population, it’s also been reported to trigger sensitivities and headaches.

Another potentially dangerous preservative, commonly used in food, is E211 Sodium benzoate. It’s mainly added in acidic food and drinks such as carbonated drinks, fruit juices, jams, vinegar, yoghurt and ice creams. The long- term intake, even in small amounts, is reported to cause nausea, vomiting, anaphylaxis, asthma, itching and hyperactivity in children.

Preservatives are even added to caviar. So pay attention not just to the price but also to E-numbers: 284-285 added to avoid bacterial overgrowth and to preserve the taste 🙂

Stabilisers and Thickeners improve and stabilise the texture of foods such as gravies, cake toppings, chocolate drinks, jellies, salad dressings. They inhibit crystallisation of sugar, stabilise emulsions and foams. Typical stabilisers and thickeners are polysaccharide such as agar-agar, starch, gelatine, pectin, alginic acids and carboxy methylcellulose.

Flavour and Flavour enhancers is the largest class of food additives. Flavour enhancers are not flavours themselves but they amplify the flavours of other substances. Synthetic flavour additives are usually a mixture of many different substances. For example, one imitation of cherry flavour contains 15 different esters, alcohols and aldehydes.

The most controversial and widely used (especially in Chinese cuisine) flavour enhancer is E621 MSG (monosodium glutamate), which gives the so-called “umami” taste.

E-numbers: 620-625. MSG acts on glutamate receptors across the central nervous system causing inflammatory reactions, potential neurotoxic effects and adverse effects on behaviour in animal studies.

After publication of animal studies, public pressure had forced child food companies not to add MSG to their products. Although there is no clinical data, sensitive people report symptoms such as abdominal pain, bloating, nausea, headache, palpitation and chest pain.

Even if MSG use is subject to quantitative limits by food regulatory bodies, but does anyone really check how much MSG is added in Asian restaurants?

MSG can be found in dairy products, bouillons, candies, chewing gum, supplements, soft drinks, salty snacks, frozen foods, cosmetics, hair treatments, shampoos, soaps and many more. Researchers suspect that MSG somehow interferes with hormonal regulation of appetite, leading to insulin resistance and weight gain.

Experiments have shown that foods containing high levels of MSG create addiction, but more research is needed to understand the effect of MSG on body physiology.

Emulsifiers are used to obtain a stable mixture of liquids that otherwise would separate quickly. For example, emulsifiers add oil and water to remain mixed together. They are usually added to dairy, cakes, desserts, cookies, ice creams, salad dressings, margarines, mayonnaise. Emerging evidence in rodent studies suggests that dietary emulsifiers may impact gut health, impairing intestinal barrier function and increasing incidence of inflammatory bowel conditions.

However, not all E-numbers are harmful. Some examples:

  • Antioxidants in pre-sliced fruits: Antioxidants are often added to pre-sliced fruits you buy in the store to remove oxygen and prevent browning. These and other fruits may be treated with ascorbic acid, or Vitamin C, which has natural antioxidant characteristics. E-numbers: 170, 300, 302, 330

  • Essential nutrients and vitamins: Many of these additives are actually essential nutrients and vitamins and are important for good nutrition. A few E-numbers essential for the human body are: E-numbers: 101 (vitamin B2), 300 (vitamin C), 306-9 (vitamin E) and 948 (oxygen).

The list of adverse effects to various additives is large, and obviously, no one will be able to remember more than a couple of E numbers while shopping. I have found a very useful app, for a tiny one-off payment of around 2 EUR or 2 GBP, called Food Additives Checker.

(Disclaimer: I don’t have any financial interest in this app).

It lists all available additives in the food industry and indicates different safety levels, potential adverse reactions and warnings for children.

I highly recommend checking suspicious E numbers on packaged foods you usually buy. Often there is always an alternative, the choice is yours.

So, what is the take-away from all this? First, E-numbers are not all bad. However, there are pretty dangerous chemicals that may trigger all sorts of reactions, especially in kids, so best to limit the exposure to man-made E additives and now you have an App to guide you. So no excuse!

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