E numbers – the facts you need to know

Ready made and processed foods are quick fixes for parents in a rush, but are those scary E numbers as bad as we think?

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In this day and age, where we’re encouraged to dish up nothing but home made organic family meals, admitting to giving your child foods containing E numbers is sure to meet with disapproval from other mums. But while E numbers get lots of negative publicity, they’re not all bad.

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The E in E numbers doesn’t stand for ‘evil;’ it simply signifies that the additive has been approved for use in the European Union, following safety tests. In fact, some E numbers are substances found naturally in fruit or vegetables. But approval isn’t set in stone, and it can be revoked if new scientific studies unearth nasty side effects.

What are E numbers for?

E numbers fall into six categories:

  • Antioxidants make food last longer by stopping fats, oils and some vitamins reacting to oxygen, which leads to spoiling. Vitamin C, also known as ascorbic acid or E300, is one of the most common.
  • Preservatives keep food fresh and safe for longer. Preservatives in processed foods include sulphur dioxide (E220) which stops mould or bacteria growing and nitrite (E249) or nitrate (E252), used to preserve bacon, ham and cured meats.
  • Colour enhancers replace colour lost during food processing or storage. For instance, caramel (E150a) is used in gravy and soft drinks, while spicy curcumin (E100), extracted from turmeric roots, gives a golden hue.
  • Flavour enhancers are used in savoury and sweet foods to perk up the taste. Monosodium glutamate (E621) is one of the most common, and is widely added to sauces, soups and sausages.
  • Emulsifiers, stabilisers, gelling agents and thickeners give body to foods and help to mix ingredients that are difficult to combine, like oil and water. These include locust bean gum (E410), made from carob beans, and pectin (E440), a common gelling agent found in apples and citrus fruits, which is used in jams.
  • Sweeteners are present in soft drinks, yoghurt and confectionery as a lower-calorie, tooth-friendly alternative to sugar. These include aspartame (E951) and saccharin (E954). The Food Standards Agency recommends diluting sugar-free soft drinks for children under four to minimise their intake of sweeteners.

Evil Es?

Combinations of some colour additives have been linked to negative effects on children’s behaviour, in particular hyperactivity and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Used in soft drinks, sweets and ice creams, they include:

  • Sunset yellow (E110)
  • Quinoline yellow (E104)
  • Carmoisine (E122)
  • Allura red (E129)
  • Tartrazine (E102)
  • Ponceau 4R (E124)

The Food Standards Agency acknowledges that there may be cause for concern surrounding these additives.

Other E numbers have divided opinions in the scientific community. For instance, research has linked the sweetener aspartame with tumours in rats, but a European Food Safety Authority review concluded that there was no conclusive evidence to suggest that it was unsafe.

Controversial E numbers include:

  • Sulphur dioxide (E220) and other sulphites (E221, E222, E223, E224, E226, E227 and E228), which are used as preservatives in soft drinks, sausages, burgers, and dried fruit and vegetables. In rare cases, these can trigger asthma attacks.
  • Benzoates (E211, E212, E213, E214, E215, E216, E217, E218 and E219), which are used as preservatives, and can make asthma and eczema worse in children.
  • Carrageenan (E407), a thickener that has been linked to cancer. Another thickener, called Guar gum (E412) can cause nausea.
  • Monosodium glutamate (MSG, E621), a flavour enhancer that is not permitted in foods for infants and young children due to concern about its effects. It also causes an adverse reaction in some asthma sufferers.
  • Monopotassium glutamate (E622), a flavouring that can cause nausea, vomiting and abdominal cramps.
  • Disodium 5-ribonucleotide (E635), a flavouring found in instant noodles and party pies, which is associated with skin rashes.

There is currently no conclusive evidence suggesting that the population at large should avoid these additives, but you may want to limit your child’s intake to be on the safe side.

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Can E numbers be avoided?

Some E numbers are necessary to keep processed food fresh and tasty, but if you want to limit your family’s consumption, you can either make your meals with fresh ingredients or read the labels carefully and switch to brands that use fewer or no additives. Low-calorie foods should be avoided for children, as they usually contain sweeteners instead of sugar.

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