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E-Numbers: The Misunderstood Additives

Posted October 03, 2023

There are a lot of misunderstandings about E-numbers. So, time to provide you some insightful insights on those ingredients. The E in E-numbers stands for Europe: these are codes added to ingredients when they are recognized as a food additive in the European Union1.

So, what is a food additive?

An ingredient can be considered as a food additive as soon as it provides a technological function to a product, i.e., colouring, taste, food safety…Then, the EFSA - European Food Safety Authority – does a safety assessment for those ingredients, fulfilling very strict criteria. Once the safety assessment is done, the ingredient is given an E-number, thus enters in the positive list of additives of the European Union2. Let’s look closer at some stereotypes about these additives.

EFSA - European Food Safety Authority

Not all E-numbers are bad!1,3

Additives are split in different group categories like:

  • The preservative group (E200-E299)
  • The antioxidants and acidity regulators group (E300-E399)
  • The thickeners, stabilizers, and emulsifiers group (E400-E499)

A preservative is an ingredient that is added to products such as food products to prolong the shelf life by protecting them against deterioration caused by spoilage bacteria or pathogens. It lowers the risk of foodborne pathologies, decreases microbial spoilage, and preserves fresh attributes and nutritional quality of food products.

Antioxidants are substances which prolong the shelf life of foods by protecting them against deterioration caused by oxidation, such as fat rancidity and colour changes. Acidity regulators control the pH of our food. They are added to food to change or maintain the right acidity or basicity level of food products.

A thickener is a substance which can increase the viscosity of a liquid without substantially changing its other properties. They are commonly used to thicken sauces, soups, and puddings without altering their taste. The function of stabilizers is to make certain food products smooth and consistent in texture. Emulsifiers are a vital ingredient to mix fat and water, substances that would otherwise separate. 

Not all E-numbers are synthetic additives 1,3,4,5

Some E-numbers are even produced by the human body itself. More specifically our body produces 20 E-numbers itself for its daily function. A lot of other ones, 96 to be exact, derive from natural sources.

These are some commonly used, also naturally sourced E-numbers:

  • E300: ascorbic acid, generally speaking vitamin C, used to preserve products for longer. It naturally occurs in a lot of vegetables and fruits, for example oranges, bell peppers, tomatoes, cabbages, onions and many more.
  • E306: Tocopherol-rich extract, mostly known as vitamin E, used to prevent oxidation of a various fats & oils. It naturally occurs in vegetables and cereals like soybean, corn, wheat, cottonseed, sunflower, rapeseed.
  • E101: Riboflavin or vitamin B2, used as a food colour. It naturally occurs in your liver, in yeast, milk, broccoli, asparagus and spinach.
  • E322: Lecithin, emulsifier used as a vital ingredient in spreads and chocolates. This additive naturally occurs in egg yolk.
  • E410: Locust bean gum. It’s used as a stabilizer in ice creams and salad products. It occurs naturally in the carob tree.
  • E948: simply stands for oxygen.

They look a lot scarier in their E-form, don’t you think? 

Food colours also play their part.

Food colours (E100-E199) play an important role in food that most consumers aren’t aware of. We buy food with our eyes: it needs to look fresh and tasty. In our subconscious, when we look at food products, our brain will already analyse how it will taste by the look of it. There have been experiments to examine the role of colour in food and the results can be surprising.

One of the most astonishing is a group of scientists adding a colour to a fine white wine to make it look red. They served it to a group of wine experts for tasting. None of the experts figured out they were drinking a white wine.

Conclusion: colour is vital in our perception of flavour and taste6. So, we shouldn’t underestimate the role of colourants in our food, which can also be derived from nature, the most well-known is probably beetroot, but there is also saffron, turmeric, paprika or even some flowers.

Supermarket girl in front of cold cuts

So, what to keep in mind?

  • Most E-numbers are vital tools for food manufacturers.
  • The food industry is heavily regulated.
  • Not all additives are synthetic, they can come from nature also.

At Kemin Food Technologies we work to find the best natural food solutions and ingredients that keeps meat, poultry, sauces, margarines, oils, and dairy products safe, delicious, and fresh during the entire shelf life. Our first aim is to answer consumer concerns in understanding their food ingredient list, thanks to naturally sourced ingredient like buffered vinegar, acerola extract, tocopherols, or rosemary extract.

As a consistently performing clear label ingredient, our rosemary extract is vertically integrated ensuring the control of the entire supply chain, from our growing fields to the food application, we can adapt to our customer needs:

  • Providing a rosemary extract antioxidant: E392 which will protect against the primary oxidation effect.
  • Providing a rosemary extract as natural flavour which still have antioxidant capacity as a secondary function.

None of them are synthetically produced: rosemary grown, harvested and then precious molecules are extracted to produce either the first one or the latter.

So, to make a long story short: don’t let scientific names of products or numbers scare you any longer!

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