E numbers suffer from a bad image. Most mums know that they're additives found in processed or ready-made foods, and have a hunch that they're best avoided. And there's no doubt that serving fresh, home-cooked food to your baby is better than eating those packed with artificial preservatives, colours or flavourings.
But while E numbers get lots of negative publicity, they’re not as evil as you might think. The E in E numbers 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 - for example, ascorbic acid or vitamin C (see below). Approval isn’t permanently fixed, however, and can be removed if further research reveals negative side effects.
What do the numbers mean?
If you're confused by the myriad E numbers listed on the side of the packet or tin, then you're not alone. E numbers are actually used for a number of different reasons, including:
To stop food going off
Preservatives keep food fresh and safe for longer. Those 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.
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 antioxidants.
To make food look nice
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.
To make things taste better
Flavour enhancers are used in savoury and sweet foods to perk up the flavour. Monosodium glutamate (E621) is one of the most common, and is widely added to soups, sauces and sausages.
To improve food texture
Stabilisers, emulsifiers, thickeners and gelling agents 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.
To reduce calories
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.
Can Es really change behaviour?
Much of the negative hype about E numbers comes down to certain colour additives linked to negative effects on children’s behaviour - in particular hyperactivity and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). These colours are used in soft drinks, sweets and ice creams, and include:
- Carmoisine (E122)
- Ponceau 4R (E124)
- Sunset yellow (E110)
- Quinoline yellow (E104)
- Allura red (E129)
- Tartrazine (E102)
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 example, 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.
Which others should you avoid?
These aren't the only E numbers to watch out for. Other controversial ones include:
- Monosodium glutamate (MSG, E621), a flavour enhancer that is not permitted in foods for babies and young children due to concern about its effects. It also causes an adverse allergic reaction in some asthma sufferers.
- 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.
- 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.
- Disodium 5-ribonucleotide (E635), a flavouring found in instant noodles and party pies, which is associated with skin rashes.
- Carrageenan (E407), a thickener that has been linked to cancer. Another thickener, called Guar gum (E412) can cause nausea.
- Monopotassium glutamate (E622), a flavouring that can cause nausea, vomiting and abdominal cramps.
There is currently no conclusive evidence suggesting that the population at large should avoid these additives, but you may want to limit your baby or toddler's intake to be on the safe side.
Should they be cut out completely?
No, some E numbers are necessary to keep processed food fresh and tasty. If you want to reduce your tot's intake of Es, then read labels carefully, and switch to brands that use fewer or no additives, and make your meals from fresh ingredients. Low-calorie foods should be avoided for children, as they usually contain sweeteners instead of sugar.
Read more on:
The vitamins your child should be eating and why, including: vitamin a, vitamin b and Vitamin c