What are e-numbers in foods, are they harmful?

E-numbers are codes assigned to food additives approved for use within the European Union (EU) and European Free Trade Association (EFTA) countries. These additives serve various purposes in the food industry, such as improving taste, appearance, texture, or shelf life. E-numbers encompass a wide range of substances, including preservatives, antioxidants, colors, emulsifiers, stabilizers, thickeners, and flavor enhancers.

The term “E-number” has gained a negative connotation in recent years, mainly due to consumer concerns about the potential health effects of certain food additives. It is essential to note that not all E-numbers are harmful; some E-numbers are derived from natural sources and are considered safe for consumption. However, there are concerns about specific E-number additives, which have been linked to health issues or are believed to be potentially harmful.

There are over 300 approved E-numbers covering a wide range of food additives. Here is an overview of the main categories of E-numbers and some examples within each category.

E-numbers Categories 

1. Colors (E100-E199): These additives are used to enhance or restore the color of food products. Examples include:

  • E100 (Curcumin): A natural yellow color derived from turmeric
  • E133 (Brilliant Blue FCF): A synthetic blue color

2. Preservatives (E200-E299): These additives help extend the shelf life of food products by inhibiting the growth of microorganisms. Examples include:

  • E211 (Sodium Benzoate): A preservative commonly used in acidic foods and beverages
  • E220 (Sulfur Dioxide): A preservative used in various products, particularly in wine

3. Antioxidants (E300-E399): These additives prevent or slow down the oxidation process in food products, thus preventing spoilage and retaining nutritional quality. Examples include:

  • E300 (Ascorbic Acid): A natural antioxidant, also known as vitamin C
  • E321 (Butylated Hydroxytoluene, BHT): A synthetic antioxidant used to prevent rancidity in fats and oils

4. Thickeners, Stabilizers, and Emulsifiers (E400-E499): These additives are used to modify the texture, stability, and consistency of food products. Examples include:

  • E407 (Carrageenan): A natural thickener and stabilizer derived from seaweed
  • E322 (Lecithin): A natural emulsifier found in egg yolks and soybeans

5. Acidity Regulators, Anti-Caking Agents, and Release Agents (E500-E599): These additives control the pH, prevent clumping, or facilitate the release of food from molds. Examples include:

  • E500 (Sodium Carbonates): A group of acidity regulators and raising agents
  • E551 (Silicon Dioxide): An anti-caking agent used in powdered products

6. Flavor Enhancers (E600-E699): These additives are used to intensify or modify the taste of food products. Examples include:

  • E621 (Monosodium Glutamate, MSG): A widely used flavor enhancer in savory foods
  • E635 (Disodium 5′-Ribonucleotides): A mixture of disodium guanylate and disodium inosinate, used as a flavor enhancer

7. Miscellaneous Additives (E900-E999): This category includes various other additives that do not fit into the previous categories. Examples include:

  • E920 (L-Cysteine): A dough conditioner used in breadmaking
  • E948 (Oxygen): A propellant used in aerosol products

While E-numbers are approved by regulatory agencies as safe for consumption within specified limits, there are a few reasons why some people may still consider them harmful or associate them with negative health effects:

    1. Individual Sensitivities: Some individuals may have sensitivities, allergies, or intolerances to specific food additives. Although these additives are considered safe for the general population, they may trigger adverse reactions in certain individuals. For example, sulfites (E220-E228) can cause allergic reactions in some people, while certain artificial colors have been linked to hyperactivity in children with sensitivities.
    2. Overconsumption: Although food additives are approved for consumption within specified limits, excessive consumption of processed foods containing these additives may result in intake levels that exceed the recommended amounts. Over time, this overconsumption could potentially contribute to adverse health effects.
    3. Controversial Studies: Some studies have raised concerns about the safety of specific food additives. However, these studies are often based on animal models, high-dose exposures, or other conditions not directly applicable to human consumption. As a result, the scientific community may not have reached a consensus on the potential risks associated with certain additives.
    4. Public Perception: The general public often perceives “chemical” or “artificial” substances as harmful, even if they are approved as safe by regulatory agencies. This perception may be fueled by media coverage, anecdotal evidence, or a general distrust of the food industry.
    5. Interactions and Synergistic Effects: While E-numbers are tested individually for safety, there is limited knowledge about their potential interactions and synergistic effects when consumed together in processed foods. This uncertainty may lead some people to question the safety of these additives.

Some of the other concerns related to specific E-number additives are:

    1. Allergies and Intolerances: Certain additives, like sulfites (E220-E228), can cause allergic reactions or intolerances in sensitive individuals.
    2. Hyperactivity in Children: Some artificial colors (e.g., E102, E104, E110, E122, E124, and E129) have been associated with hyperactivity and attention problems in children.
    3. Carcinogenic Potential: Certain additives, such as E131 (Patent Blue V) and E133 (Brilliant Blue FCF), have been linked to potential carcinogenic effects in animal studies, although the evidence is not conclusive.
    4. Artificial Sweeteners: Some artificial sweeteners, such as aspartame (E951), have raised concerns due to anecdotal reports of adverse effects. However, scientific studies have not provided conclusive evidence that these sweeteners are harmful at approved consumption levels.

Despite the concerns surrounding some E-number additives, it is important to remember that regulatory agencies like the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) rigorously evaluate their safety before approval. Nonetheless, consumer demand for cleaner and more natural ingredients has grown, leading to the development of alternatives like Unifier®, which eliminates the need for artificial emulsifiers and controversial additives.

What are e-numbers in foods, are they harmful?

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