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E-numbers – friend or foe?

By Irfan Hassan
Beverages, Are E-numbers our friends or foe?

E-numbers get a lot of media attention but, once again, the reality is a little different from what is often portrayed. The phrase itself conjures up images of food nasties, but are they really as bad as we are led to believe? Well firstly, let’s look at E-numbers are.

After an additive has been tested and approved for use in foods in Europe, it is given a classification known as an E-number (a number with an E prefix, e.g. E100), for the purposes of regulation and to inform consumers. In other words, it is simply a systematic way of identifying different food additives. Countries outside Europe use only the number (no ‘E’), whether the additive is approved in Europe or not. 

The important (and perhaps surprising) point to bear in mind, is that even natural additives will be labelled with an E prefix – so don’t automatically discount a portion of food that otherwise looks healthy. Knowledge is power, so know your E-numbers!

Are food additives (E-numbers) safe?

This is a controversial question and one that has not been answered satisfactorily as yet. However, common sense dictates that filling our bodies with synthetic chemicals cannot be as healthy as eating a diet rich in natural whole foods and may even be detrimental to health, for instance by adding to our toxic load.

But since the second half of the 20th century, there has been a significant increase in the use of food additives of varying levels of safety and for the reasons described above. This has necessarily led to the introduction of a wide range of laws worldwide, regulating their use.

The long-term effects on the body of regularly consuming a combination of different food additives are, unfortunately, currently unknown – hence the need for regulation. This is largely because most additives are tested in isolation, rather than in combination with other additives. However, what is clear is that some people are sensitive to them and suffer reactions as a result of their consumption. These reactions include:

– Headaches

– Skin irritations (itching, rashes, hives, etc)

– Digestive disorders (including diarrhea and abdominal pains)

– Respiratory problems (like asthma, rhinitis, and sinusitis)

– Allergic reactions and anaphylactic shock

– Behavioural changes (such as mood changes, anxiety, and hyperactivity).

Research undertaken in 2007 by Britain Food Standards Agency and later published by the British medical journal, The Lancet, provided evidence that a mix of additives commonly found in children foods serves to increase the mean level of hyperactivity. Similarly, in 2008, AAP Grand Rounds (the American Academy of Pediatrics) published a study that concluded that a low-additive diet is a valid intervention for children with ADHD.

Bearing all this in mind, it is important to remember that all foods are made up of chemicals, many of which are not always safer than those found in food additives. For example, people with food allergies and intolerances are also often sensitive to chemicals found naturally in certain foods, such as dairy, nuts, or shellfish. However, it is always a good rule of thumb to opt for natural ingredients over synthetic ones and to adopt an organic lifestyle wherever possible.

Additives (E-numbers) to watch out for!  

Some of the additives most likely to cause reactions include:

Flavour enhancers: A well-known example is monosodium glutamate (MSG E621). They are commonly found in crisps, instant noodles, and microwave and takeaway foods.

Aspartame: This is an artificial sweetener, which is made of phenylalanine, aspartic acid, and methanol (a type of alcohol). When broken down in the body, methanol forms formaldehyde, formic acid (found in the venom of ants and bees), and diketopiperazine – all quite nasty substances! Aspartame is found in diet drinks, yogurts, and sugar-free items (like chewing gum).

Sulphites: This group of additives is often found in dried fruit, desiccated coconut, cordial, and wine. They have been known to trigger asthma attacks in sensitive individuals.

Propionates: This type of additive can occur naturally in foods (e.g. certain types of cheese). They are also common in bread. The effects are dose-related and may range from migraines, bed-wetting, nasal congestion, and racing heart to memory loss, eczema, and stomach ache.

Antioxidants: Don’t get confused with the naturally-occurring antioxidants found in whole foods like fruit and vegetables and which are widely used to support good health and immunity. Antioxidants in the context of food additives refer to those that are synthetic chemicals that are added to food, and may therefore have a harmful effect on the body.

Examples include Butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT) and Butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA), which are added to prevent fat spoilage. They are commonly found in margarine, biscuits, crisps, and muesli bars. They have been linked to health conditions such as insomnia, tiredness, asthma, and even learning difficulties.

Colours: The most common offenders in this category of additives are tartrazine (E102) and annatto (E160b). Synthetic colourings have been linked to allergic reactions, as well as learning and behavioural problems in children. 

Categories of additives

Preservatives, colourings, and flavourings are some of the best-known additives. However, there are actually a number of other categories, each of which is tailored to a specific purpose. These include:

– Acids 

– Acidity regulators 

– Anti-caking agents 

– Antifoaming agents 

– Antioxidants

– Bulking agents 

– Colour retention agents 

– Emulsifiers 

– Flavours 

– Flavour enhancers 

– Flour treatment agents 

– Glazing agents

– Humectants 

– Tracer gas

– Stabilizers 

– Sweeteners 

– Thickeners 

In fact, there are currently over 3000 additives used in food across the world, most of which are synthetic!

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