More and more of us are trying to eat clean or want more transparency about what is going into our food. As a result there is a lot of confusion about E-numbers and additives. Some of this is due to concerning evidence emerging such as artificial colours linked to hyperactivity in children, nitrites in processed meat may increase cancer risk and consuming ultra processed foods is linked to cancer incidence. So what are E numbers and, if you want to, how can you avoid them?
What are E numbers?
E numbers are additives, used in foods to colour, enhance flavour, create texture, add sweetness or extend shelflife. The E number is a short code name assigned to an ingredient when it is approved for use in food, in Europe, as an additive. E numbers go through rigorous safety studies before they are approved for use, and many have maximum levels assigned to them, so cant be used willy nilly. A full list of approved E-numbers can be found on the Food Standards Agency website.
That sounds a bit scary but a few E-numbers are in fact store cupboard ingredients, which you would use at home such as E500 which is baking powder.
Certain E-numbers can also be considered natural as they are extracted from plants. For example E440 pectin is from the peel of citrus fruits and used to set jam and marmalade. Some vitamins and minerals are also E-numbers, and like fortifiers will contribute to your daily intake. E300 ascorbic acid may sound scientific but in fact is’s just vitamin C, a widely used antioxidant.
But for the most part E numbers are artificial ingredients, that we wouldn’t otherwise eat. They are, added during large scale factory production to replace quality that may have been lost during processing and to make the food last longer. E numbers in the ingredients list are a key indicator of the level of processing a product has undergone.
Alongside E-numbers are other additives such as flavourings, processing aids and enzymes. Flavourings are rather complex, there are hundreds of different natural and artificial flavouring substances which are mixed together and blended with carriers to create the many flavor profiles we find in confectionery, snacks and lots of prepacked foods. Enzymes and processing aids are substances used in the production of food, but deemed to have no function in the end product. For example, vegetable fat used to stop biscuits sticking or enzymes used in bread making and brewing.
What to look for on the label:
- It’s more common for E numbers to be labeled on the ingredient list with their full name and function, instead of the E-number code, which often makes them hidden on the back of pack.
- Flavourings despite the blend or components can be labeled just as “flavour”, “flavouring” or “natural flavouring” depending on their composition.
- Enzymes and processing aids do not have to be declared on the ingredients list.
- Furthermore, claims on front of packs such as ‘No artificial colours/flavours/ingredients’ does not necessarily mean no E numbers or other additives are used in the product.
What should I do?
If you want to avoid unknown additives in your diet, check back of pack labels and choose foods with ingredients you recognize on the label.
Or… simply download the Giki app and look out for the Free from Additives badge when choosing products. Giki will still award a badge if products contain store cupboard ingredients or vitamin and mineral additives. If a product contains Enumbers, Giki will tell you what they are.
However, the best advice from Giki is to buy fresh, local produce and meat, organic where possible, and cook from scratch using wholesome ingredients whenever you can.
What additives have you discovered in the products you buy and do they concern you? We would love to hear your views!