How do you feel about food additives? If you live in the European Union, these are known as E Numbers.
The “E” stands for Europe (European Union) and identifies 319 food additives (colors, preservatives, stabilizers, etc) approved for use throughout the EU. For 25 years (since 1986) e-numbers have been used as food additives.
Because they are “additives” placed into the product during manufacturing, they have taken on the perception of being unnatural or synthetic.1 However, many are indeed naturally occurring (such as oxygen or vitamin C) and are eaten in foods that contain no additives.
Close your eyes. Take a breath. Can you feel it? That’s right, you have just inhaled e-numbers in the form of oxygen (E948) and nitrogen (E941) and exhaled another, carbon dioxide (E290). This simple process is vital for our wellbeing and health. It forces us to use some of the very chemicals we have become so concerned about when they are in our foods.
Without really knowing it, people who are trying to avoid these e-numbers are likely creating e-numbers when cooking. When you heat sugar, for example, you are creating caramel (E150a), an e-number used as a coloring agent. When you create homemade jams, you are creating pectin, known as E440. Even more surprising is that fruits such as oranges (vitamin C, or E300) and tomatoes (carotene or E160a) contain e-numbers. Even those synthetic e-numbers can be nature identical, i.e. although they are manmade, they can have the same chemical structure as naturally occurring substances.
So are e-numbers dangerous when eaten? Could they even be good for us?
How is the safety of e-numbers determined?
Under EU legislation, e-numbers must go through a series of assessments prior to approval for use in foods. Prior to assessments of manufacturing quality (Good Manufacturing Practices), all additives must be assessed for safe use by the Panel on Food Additives, Processing Aids and Food Contact Materials (AFC). After trials in the long and short-term safety of such e-numbers, an acceptable daily intake (ADI) is provided, stipulating a safe level of use for consumption.
Furthermore, under new regulations all food additives permitted before 20 January, 2009 (the vast majority) should be subject to a new risk assessment by European Food Safety Authority. Together, these assessments should ensure that any e-number allowed for use in our food should be there for a specific reason and are safe.