E numbers, those mystery coded chemicals that litter the back of food packets. The marker of an unhealthy, synthetic ‘food’. Many of us associate them with the blue smartie debacle from a few years back. Those little E numbers. What are they, that they can cause hyperactivity in children?
Are they just an additive; a colouring to give foods a more vibrant hue? We associate them most closely with junk foods but is there more to E numbers than meets the eye? Or is there something fundamentally foul about them?
Admittedly, before researching this piece, the Domu team had a very biased view of E numbers. We were shocked by what we found.
E is for evil?
Surprisingly, ‘E’ doesn’t reflect any chemical or synthetic status, it actually stands for ‘Europe’. E numbers are codes for substances that have been safety tested, and approved for use as food additives within the European Union.
The numbers themselves, are grouped to show what kind of additive they are.
E numbers can either be:
A colour (100 – 199)
Preservative (200 – 299)
Antioxidants and acidity regulators (300 – 399)
Thickeners, stabilisers and emulsifiers (400 – 499)
pH regulators and anti-caking agents (500 – 599)
Flavour enhancers (600 – 699)
Antibiotics (700 – 799)
Waxes, sweeteners and foaming agents (900 – 999)
Additional chemicals (1100 – 1599)
As you’d expect, most additives have little to no nutritional value but, crucially, they are not harmful. E numbers are added to food to keep food fresher for longer, enhance taste, ward off bacteria or improve the colouring. Whilst you might imagine that E numbers are derived from manmade or synthetic chemicals, a lot are found from natural sources.
You’ll actually be familiar with many E numbers, but in a different guise. To name a few: E160c is paprika, E300 is vitamin C, E101 is Vitamin B2 and E307 is Vitamin E.
When do I eat them?
E numbers seem synonymous with processed junk food. Some of us recoil when we see E numbers listed on the back of a food pack. But in reality, we frequently ingest E numbers without even knowing.
Many E numbers act as preservatives: substances that stop other dangerous or toxic reactions happening with our food. They stop the spread of bacteria, keeping our foods safe to eat.
Potassium nitrate (E525) is used to cure bacon and stop any bacteria spreading on the meat. Sulfur dioxide (E220) is used in almost all wine making processes – and has since the Roman days. Even the finest caviar contains an E number: E284. It’s is used to preserve and add longevity to this expensive dish.
Why do they have a bad rep?
The Southampton Six. Whilst anything listed in a chemically coded format will sound and feel unnatural, these six E numbers swayed public opinion.
If we hark back to 2007, headlines were awash with news that some synthetic food dyes, when combined with sodium benzoate, were linked to hyperactivity in children.
Mirroring the public outcry of the horsegate scandal, the UK populace was decidedly against chemical dyes in food. Nestlé removed the blue smartie, E110, E104, E122, E129, E102 and E124 were banned and, as a nation, we tarred all E numbers with the same unwholesome brush.
Are they actually bad for us?
Knock us over with a feature but actually no, they’re not. They’re not particularly good for us, in the sense that they provide little to no nutritional benefit to our bodies, but likewise, it’s extremely unlikely that they will do us any harm.
Whilst the numbering system may be off putting, in some ways, isn’t it reassuring to know that the ingredients in our foods have been rigorously tested and approved by the powers that be?
What’s important to remember is that whilst many processed or junk foods do contain E numbers, E numbers aren’t the real culprit. What makes these foods an unhealthy choice isn’t the long list of E numbers, but rather the sugar, fat and salt content.
So I can eat them?
Yes. Nothing beats fresh, whole foods but there’s no reason to purposely omit E numbers from your diet. Whilst some E numbers do have artificial or synthetic origins, that in no way means they are harmful to you.
A word of warning though: E numbers are frequently found in food products that do contain harmful ingredients - when eaten regularly. Crisps, chocolate, biscuits, fizzy drinks and sweets all contain E numbers. But these foods also contain lashings of sugars, salts and fats.
The real difference is evaluating each product as a whole: with or without E numbers – is this the best thing for my body?
Interested in nutrition? Read our next post on anti-nutrients found in your food.