Harmless addition or potentially dangerous?
Neon yellow jelly sweets, sky-blue ice cream, whole cakes in all colours of the rainbow — that is only possible with artificial colouring. These and other food additives are often labelled with an E number instead of their name. The “E” stands for Europe and indicates that the substance is permitted by the EU to be used in all of Europe’s countries and Switzerland. We put together some important information for you:
Food additives influence consistency, shelf life, taste, and looks of products. Most of them were developed in laboratories within the last decades. Nowadays, there are more than 380 food additives permitted. At the beginning of the 90ies, there were only over 200. Until 2020 the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) is re-evaluating all food additives that were permitted before 2009. Their findings will influence the politics and legislation of the European Union.
The hundred number already indicates which category the food additive belongs to. They go as follows:
- 100s: colourings
- 200s: preservatives
- 300s: antioxidants and acidity regulators
- 400s: emulsifiers, stabilizers, thickening and gelling agents
- 500s: anti-caking agents and acidity regulators
- 600s: flavour enhancers
- 900s, 1100s, 1200s, 1400s and 1500s: sweeteners, flour treatment agents, humectants, packaging gases
The food additives are not added up consecutively. If a substance looses its authorization, the E number will not be assigned again.
The category labels indicate that these food additives change a product on a physical or chemical level and are not supposed to add any health value. Their origin can be artificial or natural, and they are often being processed for their purpose to some extent. Complex authorization procedures suppose to confirm the health safety of food additives.
Effects on the human body
Those authorization procedures only prove that certain substances are not toxic in low concentrations. They should not be able to cause any health damages. But for most food additives, there are no long-term studies confirming their harmlessness. Rather, more and more studies arise indicating a direct correlation between food additives and several diseases. Artificial colourings like E102, E104, E110, E122, E124 and E129 may contribute to attention deficit and concentration disorders (like ADHD) in children. Many of those colorings, like E151, E154, E155 and E180 can possibly cause asthma, atopic eczema and allergies. Other additives may give rise to cancer, like E123. Also sickness and vomiting (E512) or diarrhoea and internal organ damage (E284, E285) can be consequences of excessive consumption. Even the risk of Alzheimer’s disease may be increased by E142. Those aluminium compounds we try to avoid in deodorants can be consumed in coating agents of confectionery products. Since the body partly stores aluminium, it’s intake is associated with breast cancer, kidney diseases and Alzheimer’s.
It is important to note that not all food additives are dangerous. Some of these E numbers indicate harmless substances like locust bean gum (E410), turmeric’s pigment curcumin (E100) and vitamin C/ ascorbic acid (E300). That is why in the EU, 50 food additives are allowed in organic food. Artificial colourings, sweeteners, stabilizers and flavour enhancers are generally prohibited.
Everyone has to draw their own conclusions. If you want to be safe, buy organic produce and prepare your foods yourself. Otherwise, is a look at the ingredient list helpful:
- Almost always true: the shorter the list, the better for you.
- If you can not pronounce an ingredient and have no idea what this substance could be, choose another product.
- Remember which food additives might be unsafe for you, or look for an app that helps you with shopping. They are available in several languages.
In the EU, manufacturers often use the E number instead of names, since substances like boric acid sound way more harmless as a number (E284). Though sometimes a name sounds better than the number, like modified starch, shellac, cochineal, and aspartame.
So we are left with having to carefully choose our foods. This is especially important for chronically sick people and those suffering from allergies, as well as children. With their lower body weight, the permitted daily allowance has a stronger effect on them. Find out about the legislation in your area/country, consumer organizations may help with local information.
Like always, preparing our own foods from local organic produce is the safest choice for our health and the environment. So enjoy!