Dossier: Healthy eating

A look at the ingredients: five questions about E-numbers

Are E-numbers bad for you? They may have a bad reputation, but they’re still found in practically all processed food. What exactly are we eating and how dangerous are additives?

Text: Katharina Rilling; photo: Joshua Rawson-Harris / Unsplash

With names like tartrazine, carmoisine and ammonia caramel, the ingredients listed on products in supermarkets often read like instructions from a chemistry set. They certainly don’t make you hungry for more. “Nevertheless, as a society we’re buying more and more preprocessed and ready-made food,” says Christine Brombach, professor at ZHAW Life Sciences and Facility Management from the Research Group for Food Perception. “Additives and certain processing steps are necessary in these sorts of products, because this is the only way to ensure they’re 100% hygienic, that they have a long shelf life and that they’ll retain their flavour for longer.” In fact, most of the food we buy is processed and packaged. All ingredients and additives used in processed food have to be listed. It’s good to know what you’re eating:

What are additives and E-numbers?

“Additives are any substances added to food during the manufacturing process that have a positive influence on their properties, for example smell, taste, shelf life, texture or appearance,” explains food expert Brombach. Additives don’t necessarily have to be artificially manufactured. They can also be of natural origin. Ingredients, as opposed to additives, are substances that occur naturally in food.

“In order to label and classify additives across all languages, the EU assigns E-numbers. There are many different materials and substances behind these numbers”, says Brombach. The “E” stands for Europe or, more recently, for edible.

What additives are available?

The term “additives” covers a wide range of substances. They’re divided into 24 categories and have different characteristics. For example, preservatives inhibit micro-organisms and ensure a longer shelf life. Emulsifiers combine substances that can’t be mixed with each other, such as oil and water. Dyes make food brighter and more colourful. And sweeteners replace sugar.

  • Preservatives
  • Antioxidants
  • Acidifiers
  • Acidity regulators
  • Anti-caking agents
  • Anti-foaming agents
  • Bulking agents
  • Emulsifiers
  • Emulsifying salts
  • Firming agents
  • Flavour enhancers
  • Gelling agents
  • Glazing agents
  • Humectants
  • Modified starches
  • Packaging gases
  • Propellants
  • Raising agents
  • Stabilisers
  • Thickeners
  • Flour treatment agents
  • Colourants
  • Sweeteners
  • Artificial flavours

Takeaway: Do bakeries and restaurants also have to declare the additives used in their food?

“No. If food isn’t packaged, a list of ingredients doesn’t have to be included either. However, you’re free to ask, because sellers have a duty to provide this information,” says Brombach.

What additives should be avoided?

There are many concerns around additives. However, Brombach gives the all-clear: “Only substances that, according to current knowledge, are harmless to consumers and technologically necessary are permitted”. They are among the best studied substances. “Many are trivial, such as dyes from plants, e.g. curcumin, the yellow dye in curry (E-100), the green plant dye chlorophyll (E-140), acetic acid (E-260) or lactic acid (E-270)”. However, there are also some additives that are now discouraged. For example:

  • E104: quinoline yellow is banned in the USA as it is suspected of being carcinogenic. It’s also said to trigger allergies and to affect the activity and attention of children. Other colourants that are not recommended: E102, E110, E122, E123, E124a, E127, E129, E142 and E155.
  • E284 and E285: Two preservatives which should also be avoided. Boric acid (E284), for example, can’t be broken down by the human body and accumulates. In very high concentrations it could damage the kidneys.
  • E385: A substance in the category of antioxidants and acidifiers that binds the minerals calcium and magnesium and therefore extracts these important substances from the body.
  • E425: From the category of thickeners and humectants, this additive prevents the absorption of important nutrients.
  • E512: An acidifier which in high doses can cause nausea and vomiting.

What can consumers do?

“If you want to be absolutely sure that E-numbers don’t do you any harm, for example because of an allergy, then the only thing to do is avoid any food that’s packaged and processed. Then you have to cook for yourself using only raw ingredients,” says Brombach. “Of course, that’s practically impossible. Wherever possible, I ensure that my food is produced regionally and processed as little as possible. During the week I don’t have much time, so I make simple meals that I can also freeze to eat later. However, I do buy certain products like some sauces, frozen vegetables and pasta. In this case, the lists of ingredients shown on the packaging help me understand what’s in the food”.

Checking substances

You can use E-number apps when shopping to quickly find out what’s in the food on the shelves.

Brochures published by the consumer advice centre also provide a good overview (only available in German).

Various lists also identify substances that may cause intolerance or are not vegan. For example (available in German, French and Italian)