Food additives are found in practically everything we eat today – from branded refined oils and fats, to even grains and spices.
Food safety authorities have made it necessary for manufacturers to declare the ingredients in their food products, so that we can all be aware of what we’re consuming. But when manufacturers do this in the form of codes that we don’t understand, this becomes rather pointless and, sometimes, unsafe.
Let’s not assume that all food additives are bad, though. For example, some even contain antioxidants, which (as we know) are always good news.
So, a great way to find out whether the food additives are good or bad is by understanding the E-numbers written in the ingredients list.
What are E-numbers?
E-numbers are codes that identify food additives (which have been officially approved after testing).
Blocks of E-numbers are allocated to specific groups of additives:
E100s: Food colours (eg. E150 caramel and E162 beetroot red)
E300s: Mainly antioxidants and some acid regulators
E321-400s: Compounds like thickening agents that give texture to the food
E500s: Salts, acid regulators and anti-caking (clumping) agents
E600s: Flavour enhancers (eg. E621 – Monosodium glutamate or MSG)
Here’s a closer look at each group.
Food Colours and Preservatives (E100s – E200s)
Food colours from natural sources like curcumin (E100) and lycopene (E160D), can offer several health benefits due to their anti-ageing, anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties.
Even preservatives have antioxidant properties, and can fight bacteria, making them good for keeping food for longer, as well as safer.
However, these specific food colours and preservatives should be avoided:
E102 – tartrazine
E122 – carmoisine
E129 – allura red
E104 – quinoline yellow
E250-251- sodium nitrates/nitrites
Some of these have already been banned in many countries, because of concerns around them causing hyperactivity in children, and allergic reactions in some adults.1
As a general rule of thumb, avoid packaged foods with very bright colours, like brightly coloured fizzy drinks.
Emulsifiers (Texture agents; E300s to E400s)
Emulsifiers are found in all sorts of products, to give them a good texture, and, by forming a barrier to moisture on food, they even prolong their shelf-life.
These are the most commonly found ones and their health connotations:
E322 – Lecithins: Found in almost everything – even chocolates!
It maintains cell structure, and has shown to have cholesterol-lowering potential (when eaten in moderation).2
However, those allergic to soy products should avoid this, because that’s where it is primarily sourced from, but is also derived from milk, eggs, sunflower kernels and canola oil.3
E407 – Carrageenan: Found mostly in dairy products
There are concerns about its post-digestion effects on the “good” bacteria of the intestine, and its risk factor for diabetes.4, 5
E471 – Mono and diglycerides of fatty acids: Found in baked goods like cakes and biscuits (even the ‘healthy’ varieties)
These are partially digested fats but may contain trans-fats, the ones associated with heart disease.6 The law to list a food’s trans-fat content on the label doesn’t apply when it is less than 0.5g.7 This doesn’t sound like much, but it adds up fast—especially for kids.
Salts, Acid Regulators and Anti-Caking Agents (E500s)
Found in all sorts of packaged foods, compounds in this group also act as preservatives.
– Anti-caking agents: used to help prevent powdered substances from clumping together (coffee/tea vending machine powders, table salt, table sugar, icing sugar, milk powder, cake mixes and instant soups).
– Acid regulators: stabilise the acidity of food to maintain their quality.
These are generally safe; however, too much salt in your diet may increase blood pressure. A daily limit of 2300 mg of salt is recommended.8
Flavour Enhancers (E600s)
Flavour enhancers are used in a wide variety of foods, both sweet and savoury. They may not be so bad because they can reduce your intake of table salt or sugar by adding flavour.
The most common one: MSG.
E621 – Monosodium glutamate
In the human body, MSG acts exactly like glutamate, an amino acid. In fact, breast milk has the highest amount of glutamate amongst all amino acids.9
When eaten with food, MSG is generally harmless because carbohydrates and proteins slow down its absorption. Only extremely large doses can make MSG high enough in our bloodstream to cause harm. We’re unlikely to reach these in general circumstances, because we’ll just get nauseous before we’re anywhere near those amounts.9, 10
Issues with MSG arise when the body fails to transport it, or because of other metabolic problems. Moreover, many people may simply be intolerant to it.9
E900-E1520 Miscellaneous Additives
These include simple elements from oxygen (E948) and hydrogen (E949), to complex compounds like water repellents, waxes, glazing and polishing agents, bleachers, sealers, and artificial sweeteners. Since they’re “miscellaneous”, it wouldn’t be accurate to categorise all as safe or unsafe – but, because of this, it’s best to be wary.
Ideally, we should away from processed foods altogether (they should definitely be avoided if you experience any sort of discomfort after eating – especially for people suffering from asthma, who are more sensitive to food allergies).11The main problem lies in the fact that all the fat, sugar and salt tends to collectively build up in our diet, when we eat large amounts of processed foods on a daily basis.
So keep an eye on the ingredients, and make healthy choices without relying on claims on food packaging!
1. Gates S. Stefan Gates on E Numbers. Octopus, 2010.
2. Mourad AM, et al. Cholesterol 2010, 2010: 824813.
3. van Nieuwenhuyzen W & Tomás MC. European Journal of Lipid Science and Technology 2008, 110(5): 472-486.
4. Tache S, et al. Nutr Cancer 2000, 37(2): 193-198.
5. Bhattacharyya S, et al. J Diabetes Res 2015, 2015: 513429.
6. Dijkstra AJ, et al. Trans Fatty Acids. Wiley, 2008.
7. FDA. A Food Labeling Guide (10. Appendix B: Additional Requirements for Nutrient Content Claims). Guidance for Industry 2013 [cited]Available from: http://www.fda.gov/downloads/Food/GuidanceRegulation/UCM265446.pdf
8. Whelton PK, et al. Circulation 2012, 126(24): 2880-2889.
9. Mallick HN. Indian J Physiol Pharmacol 2007, 51(3): 216-234.
10. Walker R & Lupien JR. J Nutr 2000, 130(4S Suppl): 1049s-1052s.
11. Spergel JM & Fiedler J. Immunol Allergy Clin North Am 2005, 25(1): 149-167.