E is for evil? The surprising truth about E numbers

This article first appeared in the June 2013 issue of Delicious magazine (UK edition)

If you’re under the impression that E numbers, those mystery ingredients we all struggle to decipher on food labels, all need to be filed under ‘E’ for evil, it may be time to reconsider.

This is the article I never thought I’d write – and possibly not one you ever thought you’d find yourself reading in delicious. I’ve devoted the past few years to encouraging children to eat ‘the right stuff’, so as a parent and food-lover I’m surprised to be defending E numbers – something I used to warn parents off. Yet the more I read about and research these ingredients, the more surprising nuggets of information come to light – much of which provides welcome relief from the scaremongering that surrounds the topic.

Simply put, E numbers are reference numbers that are given to food additives such as colourings, emulsifiers, thickeners, preservatives and flavourings. All ingredients that have an E number have passed safety tests and been approved for use in the EU.

I’m not saying E numbers are nutritional powerhouses – unless you count E300, which is vitamin C, often found in your daily loaf. But what I am saying is that before we glibly nod along to the celebrity chef who asserts that all food should be additive-free, perhaps we should consider what these little things with such a big, bad reputation are all about. Here are a few points to think about:

You probably cook with E numbers on a regular basis

Many E numbers are widely used by many cooks – including those who resolutely cook from scratch and read the backs of packets to avoid nasties. Just because an ingredient is a storecupboard staple doesn’t mean it doesn’t also have an E number attached to it. The paprika dusted over those chicken breasts is also known as E160. And that bicarbonate of soda you buy to make your Victoria sponge? It’s otherwise known as E500.

Not all E numbers are synthetic

Take a look at a bottle of Ribena and you’ll see it contains something called anthocyanins (E163). Anthocyanins, which are extracted from grape skins, are a completely natural colouring - and also a powerful antioxidant. E412, also known as guar gum, is thickener that comes from a plant extract and is often used in making ice cream.

E numbers have an alter-ego…

…and marketing gurus can use this fact to try to fool you. Cochineal, for example, is a naturally sourced food colouring derived from insects native to South America, producing a crimson dye. You’ll usually see it listed by its less innocuous-sounding name rather than its number (E120). Clever.

The ones to watch:

Anyone who works in the back-room of the food industry will tell you that, before any product goes anywhere near our shop shelves, it undergoes vigorous testing. E numbers are no different. Yet in my view there are a few worthy of caution.

Nitrates / nitrites: Essentially these are preservatives commonly added to bacon, ham and sausages. One of their main functions is to protect against bacteria (and the serious risk of botulism which, admittedly, is about as serious as food poisoning can get). That said, I’m still not a fan. A 2010 Harvard Medical School report concluded an association between processed meat and both heart disease as well as diabetes. Likewise a 2011 report, undertaken by scientists at Imperial College London, revealed that both red as well as processed meat increases the risk of bowel cancer (backing up similar findings from a 2007 study funded by the World Cancer Research Fund). The bottom line, from my perspective at least? Everything in moderation (including moderation – I can’t imagine never having a bacon sandwich again) but I certainly feel we should seriously reduce our intake of processed meats.

Artificial sweeteners: I rarely eat or drink anything with artificial sweeteners since when I do, I generally feel nauseous. I recently hit Google and was intrigued to find out more. Aspartame (E951) is a controversial sweetener typically found in diet drinks. It’s been the subject of much debate – not helped by a widely circulated email, now considered to be a hoax, which cited it as the cause of brain tumours. This hasn’t been backed up with any evidence. In fact to date, no research is conclusive other than the fact that it should be avoided by sufferers of phenylketonuria (PKU) since it contains a substance called phenylalanine. Interestingly though in 2008 the NHS reported possible links between artificial sweeteners (saccharin in particular) and – surprisingly – obesity itself, following a study funded by the US Institute of Health. This study suggested that artificial sweeteners might be responsible in interfering with human metabolism. Again however, more research is needed. It’s worth noting though that many nutritionists I speak to are concerned that artificial sweeteners may cause us to gain weight by the fact that we trick ourselves into the off-setting rule (“I’ve had a diet cola so it’s ok to eat this plate of chips” type of thing. I admit I tend to do this with my favourite reduced fat crisps). Various claims have also been made by the public concerning the neurotoxic effects of artificial sweeteners – that they cause headaches (that’s me) and even seizures or hallucinations. So far however these are considered purely anecdotal – so I guess watch this space.

Artificial colours: Specifically, the Southampton Six, a set of artificial food colourings which a 2007 University of Southampton study concluded were the combined cause (along with sodium benzoate) of increased hyperactivity in children. The Food Standards Agency in 2008 announced its decision to phase these colours out. For the record they are: sunset yellow (E110), quinoline yellow (E104), carmoisine (E122), allura red (E129), tartrazine (E102) and ponceau 4R (E124).

My friend Maggie Bolger from the Maggie and Rose brand of children’s clubs recently in fact gave me the haeds up on a terrific set of natural colourings available from www.souschef.co.uk – a great tip if you tend to bake with kids.

And finally…

For the most part, E numbers are in your food for a reason: either to enhance its shelf life (a lifesaver let’s not forget for people who live alone or can’t shop every day) or to improve its appearance, flavour or texture. So although it’s on-trend to demonise the Es, I’d suggest it’s worthwhile taking each at face value and finding out a little more before you decide what to buy – or not. Perhaps E therefore ought to be for educate?