What are E numbers?

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There are thousands of additives used in food, ranging from coloured spices to acid preservatives. With some being much more harmful than others, how are you supposed to differentiate between them? Chemicals can have such complex names that you can read the back of a crisp packet and be none the wiser to what it is you’re actually eating.

E numbers are the codes given to these additives, helping to categorise them based on their characteristics. Each category provides a different purpose for the food they are added to. This numbering system was put into place in the 1960s, with each additive given a unique number based on its properties. These are prefixed with an E for Europe, but many countries outside of Europe simply use the number. One example is aluminium, which is given the code E173. The numeric part begins with a 1, indicating that the additive is used as a food colouring. In this case it gives a silvery shine to food, sometimes seen on sugary confectionery.

Some E numbers are deemed necessary to give foods the characteristics that make them appealing, but negative health impacts can be hidden behind the coded letters. 


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This article was originally published in How It Works issue 138, written by Ailsa Harvey 

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