E numbers are a group of chemicals that have been designated by the European Union as food additives. They are often referred to in a disparaging manner as if they were all bad for you. However this is a long way from the true situation. Firstly, many e-numbers occur naturally in foods, examples being vitamin C - E300, vitamin E - E306, lycopene - E160d and lecithin - E322 . Secondly, not all artificial e-numbers are bad for your health.
When considering e-numbers, we need first to know what they are there for. This way we can judge whether their usage is really of benefit or whether their potential for harm outweighs their function in the food. It is those e-numbers which are potentially bad for health that we want to avoid. Those which are harmless or even good for health are clearly acceptable, unless there is another reason, such as environmental damage or an animal origin that would be unacceptable to certain groups of people.
How do I know what e-numbers a food contains?
Basically if it is a natural, unprocessed food and not in any packaging, it probably only contains natural e-numbers which are unlikely to cause problems. If you are buying packed or processed foods then look on the labels. By law in Europe and the United States most classes of packaged foods have to show their ingredients. In Europe many of these will show up as e-numbers.
The e-numbers which cause most of the problems are from the groups below:
Colours are added to foods to make them look more appealing. They normally increase sales of items, as the colours are carefully chosen to be as appealing to peoples tastes as possible. However many colours, especially those that are azo dyes are associated with hyperactivity and behavioural problems in children. Studies on convicts have shown a link with better behaviour when food containing these azo dyes was withdrawn from use. Some of the colours are linked with skin problems, uncontrollable sneezing as well as certain cancers. In 2007 the UK Food Standards Agency called for a voluntary removal of the azo dye colours from foods. However you'll still find plenty of them about.
The mushy peas shown left contain tartrazine - E102 which is strongly linked to hyperactivity in kids. Tartrazine is actually a yellow dye and can be found also in a lot of yellow coloured foods such as ice cream. It can be used with brilliant blue - E133 to produce a bright green shade. Other colours that can cause problems include:
- Sunset yellow - E110, typically found in orange squashes, apricot jam, marmalade and packet soups.
- Carmoisine - E122, typically found in jams, yoghurts and jellies.
- Ponceau 4R - E124, is banned in the US as a result of its link with cancers. Typically found in dessert toppings, seafood toppings, jellies, trifles, soups and salami.
- Quinoline Yellow - E104, typically found in lipsticks, some medications, scotch eggs and smoked haddock.
- Allura red - E129, typically found in sweets, soft drinks and medications.
Most of the colours above are azo dyes produced from coal tar. You are definitely best off avoiding them all. However not all colours are bad. Consider curcumin - E100 (from turmeric) and riboflavin - E101 (otherwise known as vitamin B2), both these colours are very beneficial to health.
Most preservatives are added to food to prevent the growth of molds and yeast. To a lesser extent they are used to slow the growth of bacteria. Two of the oldest preservatives known to mankind are sugar and salt. These make life difficult for microbes such as, molds, yeast and bacteria by drawing water away from them through their osmotic action.
Can we avoid preservatives altogether?
It would certainly be difficult. Preserving foods has a long history, starting with sugar, salt and dessication. This was done to ensure there was a supply of food in hard times either due to long winters or occasional famines. Food preservation is basically a way of enabling humans to live outside the tropics, where seasonality makes certain foodstuffs unavailable during certain months of the year.
Are preservatives bad for us?
There are a number of preservatives that are in common use that are not particularly good for us, especially in large amounts. These include the nitrites, sulphites and benzoates. The more mundane, sugar and salt could be added to this list. Think about it. Foods that rot are good for microbes and we are pretty similar to microbes. It is the microbes themselves that make rotton food bad for us, not the chemical nature of the food. On the other hand foods that microbes cannot live off, probably aren't that good for us either as they contain chemicals that are toxic to life. What we hope is that the toxicity is worse for the microbes than it is for us.
So which are the preservatives to avoid?
- Nitrites E249-E252 are all pickling salts. They are capable of forming cancer causing compounds in the gut and are found in smoked and pickled meat and fish products. Some of the foods preserved in this way are otherwise healthy, such as smoked salmon. So these foods are best eaten in moderation.
- Sulphites E220-E228 can cause respiratory irritation and are a problem for many asthmatics. They can also sometimes cause skin rashes and gastrointestinal distress. They are found in most red wines, a lot of dried fruit and quite a few bakery goods. Some sulphite containing foods contain other nutrients that are good for us, these include red wine and dried fruit. It is best to eat these foods in moderation, but unless you suffer from sulphite sensitivity it is probably OK to include them in your diet.
- Benzoates E210-E213 are found in soft drinks, margarines as well as some beers and vinegars. Benzoates can all produce the cancer forming compound, benzene under the right circumstances. It is best to avoid them, or at least keep their consumption to a minimum.
Sweeteners are like colours in that they are put into foods to attract us to the food, but do not add any benefit either nutritional or in terms of preventing spoilage. For the purposes of food additives they are defined as non-carbohydrate, so sugar and fructose are not included. They are found in many foods including sports drinks, most fizzy drinks, with tea and coffee,
Are sweeteners bad for us?
To be honest they are not particularly good for you, and add no health benefit whatsoever. Their e numbers range between E420-E422 and E927 - E967. The best known are sorbitol - E420, glycerol - E422, acesulfame K - E950, Aspartame - E951, saccharine - E954, sucralose - E955 and xylitol - E967. At least three of these sweeteners seem able to raise levels of insulin, the hormone that pumps sugar in our blood stream into our cells. However since we have not actually consumed any sugar, it is likely to lead to hypoglycaemia (low blood sugar), and consequent fatigue and possibly headache and dizziness. Also some sweeteners have been linked to cancers in animal studies and other symptoms such as seizures.
Do sweeteners help us lose weight?
No, there is no good evidence to show that artificial sweeteners promote weight loss. In fact some studies have shown that they do the reverse. This is likely to occur because the artificial sweeteners cannot fool the brain completely. Sugar according to one study in the Netherlands was able to activate the caudate nucleus, a reward centre in the brain, whereas a blend of artificial sweeteners had no effect on this area. As a result the brain seems able to stimulate the appetite more after taking artificial sweeteners, leading to increased calorie intake.