E numbers: they are much discussed, but poorly understood. At a time when consumers are more critical of the food they consume, E numbers remain a sensitive issue. What exactly are E numbers? How did they come about? And how safe are they actually? These are questions that consumers would like to see answers to. These topics are therefore discussed in detail here. For too long, consumers have lived in doubt about what exactly is in their food. The time seems more than ripe to find out what the real, hard facts are about E numbers.
- Definition and functions of E numbers
- The EU and guidelines regarding E numbers
- E-numbers and science
- Risks of E-numbers
Definition and functions of E numbers
Definition of E numbers
E numbers are additives to our foods. All E numbers, which now number more than 350 , are permitted by the European Union. In addition to the E numbers, this E list also contains the maximum quantities to be used per number.
E numbers can be vegetable, animal, or synthetic. An intermediate form are the nature-identical E numbers: these substances do occur in nature, but are produced chemically. Both nature-identical and synthetic numbers are made in the factory. Manufacturing the substances in the laboratory is cheaper than working with the natural variant.
Some of the E numbers are therefore chemical-synthetic. The basis of these synthetic substances can be natural. However, synthetic E numbers have no nutritional value. Other E numbers are natural products from plants, many are also normal salts. After all, some E numbers are made from animal products.
A large proportion of all E numbers are naturally found in food. A tomato, for example, contains ten to fifteen such numbers. Organic products also contain E numbers, but significantly less. For example, organic ham has two additions instead of the normal eighteen. In total, only 48 numbers may appear in organic foods. In any case, that is a lot less than is in our non-organic food.
Functions of E numbers
For centuries, people have been trying to preserve food for longer by adding natural additives. Producers still see preserving the properties of food, such as taste, color and structure, as a primary goal and E numbers have been created to guarantee this preservation function.
Including preservatives, E numbers can be divided into the following groups. Each of these groups has its own function:
- Colorants (E100-E180): Colors of foods such as strawberry jam, candies, margarine.
- Preservatives (E200-E296): Prevent spoilage by bacteria and fungi.
- Food acids (E260-E385 and E472)): Adding acid or increasing sour taste.
- Antioxidants (E220-E321): Prevent oxygen damage.
- Gelling agents/Emulsifiers/Stabilizers/Thickeners (E322-E495): Making fruit products stronger/Making it possible to mix fat and water/Preventing the product from rapidly deteriorating in quality/Making the product stronger (kind of binding agent).
- Acidity regulators/anti-caking agents/raising agents (E500-E585): Regulate acidity; provide a more sour or less sour taste/Prevent clumping of powdered foods/Allow dough to rise.
- Flavor enhancers (E620-E640): Enhance flavor, such as canned soup, soy sauce and sausage.
- Glazing agents/Anti-foaming agents: Apply a thin layer of wax/Preventing foam in soup and pineapple juice, among other things.
- Flour improvers: Improve baking properties or whiten flour.
- Packaging gases: Ensure that the product remains in good condition (often stated as ‘protected atmosphere’); work as a kind of antioxidant.
- Sweeteners (E420, E421 and E950-E967): Sweetening products.
- Other excipients such as modified starch (E1400-E1500) and enzymes.
In summary, E numbers are there to give our food a better color, to extend the storage time, to maintain consistency, to prevent metal poisoning, to facilitate preparation and to improve the taste.
If you think that the above list of E numbers is the end of it, then you are wrong. There are also substances in our food with the following names: complexing agents, carriers, clarifiers, metal binders, propellants and fillers. These are used to prevent disruption by metal ions, to dissolve certain substances, to make drinks clear, to bind loose metal molecules to prevent them from becoming toxic, to provide pressure such as with a spray bottle, and finally for giving of volume to the product such as nutritional supplements.
The EU and guidelines regarding E numbers
Establishment of the guidelines for E numbers
E-numbering has been mandatory since 1990. The E-list was created through the mutual influence of three different social forces: the European Commission, food producers, and environmental organizations. The power of the lobby from the food industry should not be underestimated.
For example, the EU food industry has been granted an exemption from registration of the risks of trans fat. Although the knowledge about these risks is present, it does not need to be made accessible to the consumer. The information on food labels can therefore always be considered incomplete. Apparently the EU considers it unnecessary for food producers to be completely open. Whether this is smart with a view to public health is another matter, but food producers have managed to negotiate this mandatory registration.
In principle, food manufacturers may only add additives that are on the E-list. However, manufacturers may also add substances that are not on this list. The fact is that components in food that are basic ingredients are not listed with E numbers. They are listed as ingredients by name. An example: a dairy product can have milk, strawberries and strawberry flavoring as ingredients. A stabilizer may also have been added to prevent the strawberries from sinking to the bottom. The stabilizer is not a basic ingredient and is therefore used as an additive and has an E number. However, the aroma is seen as a basic ingredient and therefore does not have an E number.
In addition to natural aromas, there are also synthetic aromas. These synthetic aromas do have an E number. E numbers are always well-defined pure substances or mixtures, but these artificial flavors often consist of very complicated mixtures of volatile chemicals.
It is striking that natural aromas do not have an E number, because such aromas sometimes consist of 800 different substances. The aroma is therefore one of the well-kept secrets of the food industry.
So there are substances in our food, such as aromas, that do not have an E number. What about checking the safety of our food?! Wasn’t the E-list created to guarantee this safety? Also when it comes to trans fats, for example. Although they have an E number, they have been proven to be harmful to people because they increase the wrong cholesterol and lower the good cholesterol. In 1995, food manufacturers jointly decided to reduce the use of trans fats in food. Yet trans fats still occasionally appear in our food, such as in margarines. This is possible simply because there are no regulations in place.
Do you want to know more about trans fats? Then read Butter versus margarine: A scientific approach.
EU measures to ensure food safety
The EU has the strictest admission standards of all industrialized countries, and therefore also has the smallest number of permitted additives. If an additive is permitted in the EU, the letter E is added. However, additives that are no longer permitted still retain the letter E.
In the EU, a number of measures are taken to ensure that you do not consume too many additives. This concerns these measures:
- The additive may only be added to a food with a limited number of other E numbers.
- Each E number has its own maximum that may not be exceeded in products.
- It has been determined for which foods the addition is necessary, also known as Good Manufacturing Practice .
- The smallest amount is determined with which the effect can be achieved with the E number.
In its assessment of food safety, the European Commission is strongly guided by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). The EFSA, founded in 2002, is an independent research institute that investigates the safety of our food. EFSA research results are analyzed by independent experts. A new additive only ultimately comes onto the market once the EFSA has checked it and the EU has given it a number.
E-numbers and science
The EFSA and their research results
Based on scientific studies, it is assumed that E numbers are safe. EFSA does not seem to take this decision overnight. And if new research undermines previous findings, the list will be revised. New research is therefore regularly conducted that can lead to adjustments to the standard.
By conducting extensive research, the ADI ( Acceptable Daily Intake ) of E-numbers has been determined. This is the maximum permitted amount per additive, and it has been determined based on research on laboratory animals. The ADI is always at least one hundred times lower than the highest amount that showed no harmful effects in laboratory animals. This factor 100 is determined by first multiplying the amount by 10 for the difference between humans and animals, and then multiplying it again by 10 for inter-individual differences. Group ADIs have also been established: these are standards for quantities for combinations of numbers. This group ADI was created because it is known that some combinations of E numbers can pose a risk.
All in all, EFSA and the EU are crystal clear about E numbers and their safety. For example, the Nutrition Center states, in line with the EFSA, that you can safely eat products with E numbers. This would even apply to sweeteners. According to the Center, our body makes no distinction at all between natural or synthetic substances, so they are both equally healthy and safe. The Consumers’ Association is also quite adamant in adopting the advice of the EFSA with the claim that scientific evidence to identify the E numbers as the culprit is simply lacking.
Yet it goes too far to characterize E numbers as entirely innocent. For example, EFSA is aware that certain numbers can cause hypersensitivity reactions in some people. E-numbers do have side effects, but that does not make them dangerous, in the view of the EFSA. In other words: E-numbers are not harmful, but can cause complaints. The ADI of E numbers is important here. If you exceed the daily permitted amount, you have an increased risk of side effects.
For example, there are a number of known risk groups that may consume too many additives. These groups are:
- Diabetics (sweeteners).
- Overweight people.
- People who eat a lot of ready-made meals (flavorings and colorings).
In addition, it is said of E numbers that only people with PKU (Phenylketonuria, a metabolic disease), or people with a hypersensitivity to sulfite, should avoid some of these numbers. There are also certain E numbers that may not appear in baby food. Regarding hypersensitivity due to E numbers, the EFSA says that E numbers owe their bad name to people who say they get complaints from them. While in reality only a small proportion of those people are hypersensitive to the substance. According to the EFSA, additives do not play a significant role in all food allergies. Although there are nutrients about which complaints are sometimes reported, they have never been found to be dangerous based on thorough research. The best known of these substances are aspartame and monosodium glutamate.
If an E number is permitted, this does not mean that an allergy to such a substance cannot occur. Only proteins can cause an allergic reaction and only a few E numbers are such proteins. An allergy to E numbers generally does not concern the E number itself, but contaminants , such as guar gum. This substance is non-allergenic in itself, but consumers can suffer an allergic reaction from proteins from the guar beans that can still be found as a contaminant in the guar gum.
Scientific studies that show the opposite of EFSA and the way in which EFSA and the EU respond
The EFSA mainly feels its own course. And the EU mainly bases its food regulations on the EFSA’s policy. But things can also go differently. Sometimes the European Commission does not adopt EFSA’s assessment, or this assessment is qualified. Such as with the much-discussed azo dyes . An English study showed that six of these substances in combination with other E numbers can cause hyperactivity in children. That is why since 2010, due to concerns from the European Parliament, a warning about this must appear on the food label. The EFSA, in turn, has re-evaluated synthetic dyes after the English study, and introduced a reduction in the ADI of azo dyes. However, the EFSA still considers the azo dyes to be safe. She believes that the chance that children can become hyperactive from azo dyes is still very small. They undermine the English research by stating that the effect of the English study is very minimal, and doubts are cast about the method of measurement. Scientific consensus is therefore not even remotely visible.
Even though the EU is known as the strictest in allowing E numbers on the market, there are numbers that are not allowed in some countries due to the risks, but are allowed in the EU. For example, cyclamate, a sweetener, is banned in the US. While the Food and Consumer Product Safety Authority in the Netherlands only prescribes that consumers should moderate the use of cyclomate.
There are groups in society, such as environmental organizations, that have a certain suspicion of some of the E numbers. However, this suspicion often cannot be substantiated scientifically. That is therefore a reason for the EFSA to refer it to the trash bin. However, the EFSA should take a closer look, as they also have a few shortcomings in terms of their level of scientific excellence.
As mentioned: E-numbers may have been permitted in the past, but later prohibited. There are also international differences. For example, E123 is banned in America but allowed in the EU . Or the other way around, such as with steviol glycosides. These are more likely to be approved in other countries than in the EU. There are simply studies that produce different results than what the EFSA produces, and this puts the EFSA studies in a completely different light.
This makes it clear why certain E numbers are banned in some countries outside Europe and not in Europe. Policymakers in countries outside Europe simply base their findings on research that has shown the harmful effects of certain E numbers. Apparently it makes a lot of difference which experts politicians listen to. And scientific studies on the same subject can produce contradictory results. That is a painful fact that must be taken into account.
The EFSA sometimes revises its own standards based on new research, but at the same time they do not shy away from continuing to believe in their own findings. Their response to research that negatively highlights E-numbers they have deemed safe is often the same: According to the EFSA, claims about the harmfulness of some substances are usually based on careless research . The EFSA naturally assumes that their claims about the harmlessness of E numbers are always based on careful research…
For example, the British biotechnologist Peter Piper recently established that sodium benzoate damages the hereditary material of yeast cells. He also indicated that the same can happen with human DNA. However, the EU concluded that there is no reason to ban this substance. Previous research – not carried out by EFSA – had already shown that sodium benzoate, in combination with vitamin C, can produce the carcinogenic benzene. Other E numbers are also brought into question in this way. This concerns, for example, aspartame (E951), propyl galate (E310), sodium nitrite (E250), and synthetic dyes such as azorubine (E122). Depending on which expert you consult, the advice on certain E numbers ranges from okay to toxic. So if you want to be careful when consuming your food, then be careful with these E numbers.
List of scientific research on additives
Frequent research is being conducted all over the world into E-numbers and their (harmless) harm to our health. In what follows, a list of different studies is presented according to their results. This can provide an idea of what scientists think about E-numbers.
This is the list of some scientific results and conclusions:
- Interactions between additives do not pose a significant health problem.
- Symptoms of E numbers can range from skin rashes to headaches and breathing problems, and from digestive problems to nausea.
- The toxicity of 39 chemicals used as food additives has been tested. Since some of these substances caused damage to the DNA, further research into this is recommended.
- A randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled and crossover study tested whether synthetic dyes and other synthetic additives have an effect on the behavior of children. Artificial colorings in food have indeed been found to cause hyperactivity in children in certain age groups.
- BHA (butylated hydroxyanisole) and BHT (butylated hydroxytoluene) are two widely used antioxidant food additives. Based on the comparison of different studies, it is concluded that they do not pose a risk of cancer. They might even prevent cancer.
- Antioxidant toxicity is one of the more controversial topics of the ongoing debate over the safety of food additives. In recent years, problems have arisen with the substances BHT and BHA. Long-term studies indicate that these substances can cause tumors in animals.
- Biogenic amines, such as histamine and triptamine, are natural anti-nutrients and play an important role from a hygienic point of view. They are implied to be the perpetrators of a slew of food poisoning episodes in society. It is assumed that they trigger different pharmacological responses. Biogenic amines are further suspected of being carcinogenic due to their ability to react with nitrite.
- Fermentation of various food substances by lactic acid bacteria is one of the oldest forms of biological preservation practiced by mankind. Recent scientific evidence supports the role of probiotic lactic acid bacteria in mediating a range of positive health effects.
- Hyperphosphatemia has been identified as a strong predictor of mortality in chronic kidney disease. There is no need to reduce the amount of natural phosphate in the diet, because this type of phosphate is not completely absorbed by the body. Inorganic phosphate, on the other hand, can measurably increase serum phosphate concentrations in patients with chronic kidney disease. Consumers should be warned that added (artificial) phosphate can be bad for health. This applies not only to people with chronic kidney disease, but to everyone.
- E621, or monosodium glutamate, a synthetic flavor enhancer not only affects the brain, but research shows that the heart, lungs and reproductive organs are at risk once it enters the blood. E621 could also lead to incurable cancers.
Risks of E-numbers
The critical consumer
The food industry has been preparing and serving food to consumers for decades. This has always taken place based on a more or less tacit confidence from the consumer that all is well with that food. Of course, the consumer never literally asked for (synthetic) E numbers, but he did, for example, want his food to look nice. E numbers in our food are not only the result of technical choices and political considerations with a view to risk. Economic considerations play just as much a role, as do choices about the aesthetic side of our food. Consumers must therefore realize that the main purpose of using different E numbers is to make a certain lifestyle possible: Who doesn’t sometimes choose to eat an easy ready-made meal after a hard day’s work, so that you can don’t have to spend an hour in the kitchen? Convenience serves man, so to speak.
However, there is an increasing group of consumers who are concerned about these (cultural) choices made about our food. For example, they complain about the loss of taste and the disappearance of traditions in the field of food preparation. They point out the pleasure they get from extensive cooking and dining, but also the social and educational importance of eating a meal together. You can label this as justified or not. However, these types of messages demonstrate the need for a food culture that is more refined than what the food industry provides us. Consumers have doubts about the way food manufacturers seem to give a one-sided meaning to our relationship with the food we eat. Because: Are convenience, efficiency and standardization things we really want? The technology from the food industry is therefore diametrically opposed to the fears and desires of consumers.
More and more people want their food to be more natural. That seems to be a movement in public opinion that can no longer be stopped. And why are consumers so much more critical? This can be explained from a psychological perspective. Consumers have completely outsourced the preparation of their food. However, they slowly start to realize that they no longer have any certainty about what exactly is in their food. Think of the mother who has to feed her three young children every day. She just doesn’t know at all whether what she gives her children is one hundred percent safe or not! Such uncertainty can create a dormant state of stress that will eventually destroy most people. It will at least give them a certain sense of unease.
Suppose that we have indeed been consuming E numbers for years, which are unhealthy for us. Even though the EFSA and the EU say that they are harmless substances. How will our body respond in the long run? Is it inconceivable that the human body, after having ingested chemical, toxic substances for so long – even in the smallest doses – will at some point protest? We may not consciously know that we are poisoning ourselves, but our body will eventually notice that, right?! Based on this idea, it is quite possible that prevailing concerns about the safety of E numbers are based on the intake of truly unhealthy nutrients and their harmful effect on our functioning.
The fact remains that we as consumers still have zero percent certainty about what is in our food. In addition to consumers being more critical, it is also time for them to become more expert.
Natural versus synthetic
The idea that natural equals harmless has no foundation. The most toxic substance in existence, botulinum, is not manufactured by humans but rather a natural substance from bacteria. Even the ten-millionth part of a gram is fatal to a human. That is why the EU also gives purely natural products that end up in our food an E number. The E-list still aims to guarantee the safety of our food.
However, consumer criticism seems to mainly focus on synthetic E numbers. That in itself is not strange, because who ever thought that humans, as natural beings, could benefit from synthetic substances? For tens of thousands of years, man has only eaten natural products, and now he is suddenly presented with substances that are completely foreign to nature. And all because our food has to look, to put it bluntly, beautiful!
An additional effect of the critical attitude of consumers is that manufacturers more often add natural additives to their foods instead of synthetic ones. This shows how powerful the consumer actually is.
The so-called need for synthetic E numbers
The EU justifies some additives on the grounds of public health, such as preservatives. Nitrate or nitrite, for example, may be added to food. This can counteract the microbiological risk of unwanted bacteria. Without nitrite it is not possible to produce certain meat products, such as luncheon meat and ham. These meat products do not offer 100% safety and a good alternative is not available. Food producers therefore find it important that our food has a (very) long shelf life. This is supposedly necessary , probably because food has to travel many kilometers before it reaches the consumer. However, you may wonder whether the way in which our food provision is organized can still be justified. Especially with a view to our health.
Various studies show that, for example, children become restless from synthetic additives. Allergic reactions are another risk that adults can also experience. This mainly concerns E200 numbers. These may only be added if necessary. But ‘necessity’ such as shelf life can be discussed.
Other E numbers are also questionable, such as fragrances and flavorings. They are there because consumers want beautiful food: they are not necessary for safe consumption. It must be said that synthetic additives are not at all indispensable! If a food contains so many synthetic E numbers, it is even likely to reduce the quality of the food. Another likely effect is that synthetic additives simply compromise our immune system.
Finally, there is one more additive that is not only unnecessary, but highly undesirable . Have you ever heard of monosodium glutamate? Other names are E621, MSG, vetsin, flavor enhancer, glutamate, yeast extract, and monopotassium glutamate. It occurs, for example, in chips. The function of this song is to stimulate the appetite . Would the people who asked for this please raise their hands?! Especially at a time when many consumers are overweight and this is a direct threat to their health, the addition of a number like E621 can even be called criminal. The consumer is simply turned into junk here.
Scientific contradictions and shortcomings
In addition to the fact that consumers no longer know what exactly is in their food, there is also another source that causes them a lot of uncertainty. Different scientists and policy makers from different countries are often diametrically opposed to each other in their studies and regulations on food. That’s a sour apple to bite into, because who should you believe? And even if you believe in what the EFSA and the EU prescribe, for example, you are still not sure whether what they say is correct.
The EFSA’s working method can certainly not be called watertight. A problem with an additive may only become apparent if people start using it for a long time and in large numbers. That is absolutely not an ideal way of working; One hundred percent testing is never completely possible. The underlying idea here is undeniable: first animals are the laboratory animals, then people are.
What also does not inspire confidence is if the European Commission does not adopt the EFSA assessment, as in the case of azo dyes. The EFSA still considers it safe, while the EU states that a warning should be given about it on the label. Apparently the EU believes that EFSA does not always conduct proper research. Or that they base their findings on too few studies. The list of E numbers has also grown significantly in recent years. Can you expect that all EFSA research into those numbers is actually correct?
Another point to consider: research into the safety of E numbers is mainly carried out through studies with animals. No research has ever been conducted on children because it is prohibited. There are also no studies into the accumulation of different E numbers, or there are studies into very long-term use of E numbers. The only studies that have been done with humans involve short-term tests on healthy, white men with only one E number .
Professor of pharmaceutical biotechnology Huub Schellekens recently won the Courage in the Lab award for his years of efforts against animal testing. Among other things, he highlighted a study that showed that in only 11 percent of breakthroughs in cancer research, these results can be replicated in studies with people. You may wonder how much credibility animal testing still has in translating the results into concrete food safety measures for humans.
So there has certainly been a lot of research into the effects of individual nutrients on our health. However, it is unclear what the effect of our overall diet is. It is simply not known what the result can be from a long-term, daily intake of different E numbers from different foods. People also ignore the fact that there are still about 11,000 to 15,000 other additives floating around in our food chain. No one can say with certainty that the combination of all these substances is not very harmful to our health. A discussion about E numbers is of course very desirable, but what about the discussion about all the other junk in our food, and about food processing processes that are horrible for our health but which therefore do not fall under E numbers?
Food manufacturers and deception
Since consumers have become much more critical, food manufacturers understand all too well that E numbers on the packaging do not really promote sales. So, for example, manufacturers call E621: monosodium glutamate, yeast extract or hydrolyzed protein. Even if the word aroma is on a label, it could mean that it contains E621. This is not only very confusing, it is also (deliberately) misleading. However, there are no regulations to prohibit this, so manufacturers just do what they want.
Food products also use other tricks, such as with nitrite, which has been shown to be harmful. Nitrite is then simply added to the product in a roundabout way, for example through a herbal extract. Nitrite does not have to be mentioned on the packaging, but it is present in the food.
Food producers are more concerned than ever when it comes to food safety. Every now and then it seems like messing around with our food is more regular than incidental. Food marketing also presents us with an image of food that is so exaggerated that it often says little about the actual product we buy. Food manufacturers simply place themselves in the suspect’s corner.
E-numbers that are said to be better avoided
Despite the fact that the EFSA and the EU strongly claim that all permitted E numbers are safe for consumption, there are numerous examples of studies that claim the opposite. We, as critical consumers, do not have to continue to follow EFSA like docile sheep. A healthy consumer is a well-informed consumer in this regard.
Below are a number of links that can help you avoid E-numbers that may be harmful to health:
- List of harmful e-numbers: http://mens-en-gezondheid.infonu.nl/diversen/54990-schadelijke-e-nummers.html.
- Useful list of numbers to avoid: http://www.challenge.net/gezond/E-nummers.html.
- Top 10 E-numbers to avoid: http://jessevandervelde.com/top-10-e-nummers-en-toetoeingen-die-je-beter-zou-vermijden/.
- List of dyes to avoid: http://www.leerwiki.nl/Het_effect_van_E-nummers.
- Decipher your food: http://www.goedgeweten.be/.
In addition to these links, there is a useful booklet on the market by Corinne Gouget, namely What’s in your food?. 14 years of research went into writing this work, a guide to E numbers and their meaning.
From all of the above, a number of conclusions can be drawn regarding E numbers and their harmlessness or harmfulness to our health. This concerns the following matters:
- There are more than 350 E numbers that are allowed to be processed in our food. E-numbers can be natural or synthetic. Synthetic E numbers themselves have no nutritional value, but serve other functions related to the food, for example