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E-Numbers - How Dangerous Are These Food Additives?

The E-number system was originally used in the European Union in order to regulate the use of substances added to processed foods and drinks to colour them, flavour them, change their texture or enhance their keeping qualities. Additives were given a unique number and those which were approved for use were prefixed by 'E'. Since then the numbering system has been adopted internationally, but only the European countries use the 'E' prefix.

Most food additives are considered by the authorities to be safe, although some are known to be cancer-producing or bad for you in other ways. Countries do not always agree on whether a certain additive is dangerous or not, hence some additives are banned in some countries but not in others.

Additives are numbered according to their main purpose as shown below:

  • E100 - E199 (colours)
  • E200 - E299 (preservatives)
  • E300 - E399 (antioxidants, acidity regulators)
  • E400 - E499 (thickeners, stabilizers, emulsifiers)
  • E500 - E599 (acidity regulators, anti-caking agents)
  • E600 - E699 (flavour enhancers)
  • E900 - E999 (miscellaneous)
  • E1000 - E1999 (additional chemicals)

Although there are several thousand additives in use, they are not all synthetic substances. We should bear in mind that food additives such as salt, sugar and vinegar have been used to preserve foods for centuries. However, the number of additives in our food and drink has exploded in the last thirty years as processed food has changed from a rare to a major component of our diet. It is this overall load which is probably of most concern.

So if an additive has been approved, it's OK, isn't it? Well, not exactly. Some approved additives have been linked with hyperactivity (ADHD) in children. Others have been linked with allergic or sensitivity reactions, asthma and migraines.

The additives that are generally considered to be the most troublesome are:

Preservatives

The nitrates and nitrites (E249 - 252) are potentially carcinogenic (cancer producing). They produce the characteristic flavour of bacon and ham which cannot be produced any other way, so unfortunately these preservatives are difficult to ban.

The benzoates (E210 - 219) can cause sensitivity problems such as urticaria or hives and asthma in people who are also sensitive to aspirin and / or tartazine (E102).

The sulphites, metabisulphites and sulphur dioxide (E220 - 227) can trigger asthma attacks due to their irritant effect on the airways. They are often found in cold drinks, fruit juice concentrates and wine, dried fruits especially apricots and sprayed on salads.

Antioxidants

Synthetic phenolic antioxidants BHA and BHT (E320 and 321) can trigger asthma, rhinitis and urticaria or hives.

Emulsifiers, stabilizers and thickeners

E430, E433 and E435 are particularly suspected of being carcinogens.

Colourings

The synthetic colours known as azo-dyes such as tartazine (E102), sunset yellow (E110) and amaranth (E123) are known for causing sensitivity reactions such as urticaria or hives and asthma, especially in children. Excess amounts of food colourings and sodium benzoate preservatives are particularly linked with hyperactivity (ADHD) in children.

Flavour enhancers

The most important and widely used flavour enhancer is monosodium glutamate, or MSG. Well known for producing 'Chinese Restaurant Syndrome', the symptoms of which range from tightness in the chest and palpitations to faintness, flushing, sweating, headache and low blood pressure, MSG is now believed to be an endocrine disrupter. This means that it can upset the body's endocrine (hormonal) system. The long term effects on all aspects of health that this could have are potentially far worse than 'Chinese Restaurant Syndrome' and for this reason particularly disturbing. MSG is also reported to trigger attacks in some asthmatics.

Unfortunately, the additive-labelling system is not infallible. Certain categories of products are exempt, such as alcoholic drinks, food and drink served in catering establishments, and medicines. Food sold without wrapping such as cheese, delicatessen items and bread may also be exempt, even though they are likely to contain additives. Even with labelled food, manufacturers may not be required to list all the substances that came already added to the ingredients.

Some categories of additives such as flavourings do not have to be listed on labels either. They have never been tested for safety, and the assumption that they are safe relies upon the fact that they are used in very small quantities. However, anyone eating large amounts of confectionery or candy, soft drinks and processed snacks is likely to get a much higher dose.

Unless we know we have problems with specific additives as individuals, we might think that there is no need to worry about them. However, very little is known about the cumulative effects of the thousands of chemicals to which we are exposed in our daily lives, whether we take them in via our food or drink, or via our skin and lungs. We can't prevent this onslaught upon our body's detoxification systems (primarily our liver and kidneys) unless we opt out of modern living. But common sense tells us that we can reduce our risks by avoiding added chemicals whenever we can. So next time you are in the supermarket, compare the labels of processed foods and select the brands with the least additives. Or better still, buy the ingredients, in as unprocessed a form as possible, and make your own low-additive meals.