What are the E numbers in our food?

How to decode the additives in your food

(Image credit: Frank Chamaki)

How are you supposed to differentiate between the additives in your food and drink? 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.

E100-E199: Food colours

E numbers in this category are incorporated to change the food’s appearance. Food colourings are common in sweets to differentiate between flavours and to make them look appealing to children. Some of these ingredients are more healthy than others, such as curcumin (E100). (Image credit:StockSnap/Pixabay)

E200-E299: Preservatives

Added ingredients in this category are used to stop food or drink from spoiling. To achieve this they fight off any bacteria, mould, fungus and yeast. Without them foods would have a shorter shelf life, becoming an unsuitable colour, texture or flavour much more quickly.

E220: sulphur dioxide is used to preserve the grapes and prevent wine from turning into vinegar. E202: potassium sorbate stops yeast from spoiling in the wine-making process. (Image credit: Thomas B/Pixabay)

E300-E399: Antioxidants

As the name suggests, antioxidants reduce oxidation. This process would break down oxygen into atoms and unpaired electrons called free radicals. Vitamin C is one of the E numbers that prevents this, stopping free radicals from damaging cells in the food.

E325: sodium lactate acts as an acidity regulator. E322: as a fatty substance found in soybeans, soy lecithin is used to bind ingredients but also contains antioxidant properties. (Image credit: Jacqueline Macou/Pixabay)

E400-E499: Thickeners, emulsifiers and stabilisers

This category has variable properties. In foods such as soups and sauces, E numbers can create a good consistency. Meanwhile, emulsifiers and stabilisers are added to foods that need to keep oils and water from separating.

E466: this cellulose gum is often added to the mix to thicken up mayonnaise. E460: microcrystalline cellulose is another term for wood pulp. This is used in some low-fat mayonnaise to replace the fat. (Image credit: Sara Cervera)

E500-E599: Acidity regulators and anti-caking agents

Acidity regulators help to control the pH of foods, while anti-caking agents are frequently used in powdered foods to absorb excess moisture and stop lumps from forming.

E500: baking soda is also known as sodium bicarbonate. This reacts with acid to increase the volume of foods such as cakes while lightening the texture. (Image credit: Evita Ochel/ Pixabay)

E600-E699: Flavour enhancers

Flavour-enhancing additives are usually added to processed foods to make them taste nicer. May fast-food restaurants and take-aways are thought to use flavour enhancers in some way, also helping to make them more addictive.

E621: monosodium glutamate is one of the most common flavour enhancers in foods. It brings out the savoury or meaty flavours. E631: disodium inosinate works with E621 to create the umami – or savoury – taste. (Image source:Pixabay)

E700-E999: Sweeteners, foaming agents and gases

The additives found in these categories hold a broad range of purposes. For example, nitrogen gas is often added to crisp packets to keep them fresh and stop them from oxidising.

E954: saccharin can have a bitter aftertaste but can make a fizzy drink 200 to 700 times sweeter than if granulated sugar is used. E951: aspartame is a sweetener that is 200-times sweeter than granulated sugar.  (Image credit: cote62/Pixabay)


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