The bad, bad E numbers
You've probably - like me - grown up with E-numbers being harmful and food containing E-numbers is more or less toxic. E-numbers need to be avoided and I myself have been one of those who have tried to avoid them in the food. But when you read the content declaration on food, most of them contain E numbers - and what do you do?
What are E numbers?
E numbers are additives approved in the EU for food and beverages by EFSA, The European Food Safety Authority. The list is long and is divided into different categories. See links to lists of E numbers at the bottom. In Denmark, the Danish Food And Drug Administration is responsible for the implementation of approved additives, as well as continuous control of manufacturers' use of E numbers.
So, E numbers are additives approved in the EU for adding to food in order to e.g. increase shelf life, colour the food (e.g. sausages and cheese) or change taste or texture. Denmark generally follows the guidelines agreed in the EU, but has stricter requirements for, among other things, nitrites.
I wonder what the Brits are going to do, no longer being a member of the EU... According to the FSA (Food Standards Agency in the UK) there will be no - or almost no changes. Let's see, otherwise it would another great blow to British exports to us in the EU.
The E number list was created in 1962 and originally it was only related to food colourings. Later, other additives were added and the list of E numbers has since then been constantly updated with additions and removals as research yields new results. There are currently around 350 food additives approved in the EU.
This means that the E number list is a here-and-now picture of what is being heard about the effect of additives on food and on us.
Are E numbers harmful?
E numbers are approved additives. This means, based on the knowledge that has been gained so far, the substances are not harmful to the uses they approved for the limit values, ADI which stands for Acceptable Daily Intake. All food produced in the EU and approved for sale in the EU must comply with the requirements for each E number.
If you eat or drink a lot of food with e.g. food colourings, there is no guarantee that you will not get a reaction, e.g. a histamin intolerance, diarrhea or otherwise. But this applies to all foods - including those that come directly from nature. We know that if you eat many carrots, the skin can become orange due to natural colour beta carotene, also called E 160a as it is used in a variety of foods.
Sweets, cake, soft drinks and ice cream typically contain many food dyes which are known to cause lack of concentration, especially in children and other sensitive individuals. But since you probably don't eat and drink it every day, in general it's not something you need to worry about. But we all know the situation with the kids having eaten too much colorful sweets for family parties, children's birthdays and other festivities. After a few hours the become totally hyperactive and we say too many soft drinks and sweets caused sugar shocks.
However, it can easily be dyes instead of sugar - and today a lot of sweets and cake do not contain white sugar at all, but instead are sweetened with Fructose (fruit sugar), which is marketed as a natural sugar, but can also cause stomachaches. Artificial sweeteners - especially in beverages - like Aspartame and and Sorbitol can cause diarrhea if the ADI is exceeded.
Did you know that Coca Cola is colored with caramel? It´s called E150d in E number language and is also called ammoniated sulfite caramel. So it is not cream caramel, but the same dye that's in soy sauce, food and other things. And if you go in and look at the Open Food Facts database, there's actually a warning that children and young people can get too much. So the label on the your coke can is actually misguiding as it clearly states caramel, which could lead to the impression it is a more natural ingredient.
But what happens if you take too much of an E number. In fact, it's hard to find any litterature on that - and that's why it's probably wise to use your common sense.
So, the E numbers are approved for normal and daily intake and therefore not harmful if you don't have allergies or intolerances and if you don't exceed the limits.
Don't be fooled
Are you also the kind of person buying foods with the fewest possible or without e-numbers?
You risk being cheated because additives listed without the E number does not mean the food is "clean" or "non-toxic". The food industry knows that many people are nervous that the declaration contains many E numbers or long difficult words that none of us can pronounce. Therefore, they call the substances something else, e.g. aroma or natural colour, but it can be an E number even if it comes directly from nature.
There are no foods that are "clean" or "non-toxic"! But whatever we eat, a little bit of almost everything it is better than much of a few foods. You can also become seriously and life-threateningly ill from being on "cleansing" and "detoxing" diets and living "clean" all the time.
The body is self-cleaning and therefore it should not be detoxed!
If in doubt, "only" about 40 E numbers are approved for organic food, while more than 350 E numbers are approved for use in conventional foods.
Another reason to do most cooking yourself and from scratch.
It is quite a jungle, but the Danish Food Authority and Open Food Facts will be my regular places to examine the E numbers in the future - completely avoid them we cannot and should not.
The Dietary Council of the Danish Food Authority advises us to:
- Eat plant-rich, varied and not too much
- Eat more vegetables and fruits
- Eat less meat - choose legumes and fish
- Eat food with whole grains
- Choose plant oils and lean dairy products
- Eat less of the sweet, savory and fatty
- Quench your thirst in water