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We all want our little ones to grow up fit and healthy, and diet plays an important role in making sure our children develop well. Go back a decade and the indgredients listed on many manufactured foods were littered with E numbers, thankfully there are fewer in most foods now, and many children's foods have no E numbers listed at all. Does that mean we are avoiding E numbers in our diet? ...and are E numbers necessarily a bad thing?
What are E Numbers?
E numbers are codes assigned to food additives. E numbers are assigned their number when they have passed safety tests and are deemed safe to include in food, so an E number is actually a mark of safety. The numbers are assigned within the European Union and only apply to foodstuffs within the EU.
What do E Numbers do to our Food?
Additives designated with E numbers are there to preserve or improve the perceived quality and shelf life of the food. They serve various purposes:-
- Flavour Enhancers are added to food to improve how they taste, they are designed to trigger our taste sensation. Mono sodium glutemate is designated E621 and is closely related to salt, which also enhances flavour.
- Sweeteners often replace sugar as they are deemed to be healthier - lower in calories and kinder on our teeth. Some intense sweeteners are thousands of times sweeter than sugar and used in tiny quantities (eg. aspartame (E951) and saccharin (E954)) whilst others replace sugar because they are cheaper (eg. sorbitol (E420)).
- Colourings improve the look of foods, either replacing colours washed out during processing of the food or adding an artificial vibrancy to make the food more visually appealing. Common colours include caramel (E150a), curcurmin (E100), sunset yellow (E110), quinoline yellow (E104) and tartrazine (E102).
- Antioxidants help to prevent oxygen from the air combining with fats, oils and vitamins in the food making them lose colour, go rancid and smell 'off'. One of the most widely used antioxidants is Vitamin C, usually listed as ascorbic acid (E300).
- Presevatives help to prevent food going off, extending their shelf life. Foods are often treated with gases to make them last longer, such as sulphur dioxide (E220), nitrite (E249) and nitrate (E252). Sugar, vinegar and salt are natural foods that also act as preservatives and may be used in foods.
- Emulsifiers (eg. Lecithins E322) help to combine ingredients that nomally separate, such as oil and water.
- Stabilisers (eg. locust bean gum, extracted from carob beans, E41) help prevent foods mixed with emulsifiers from separating again.
- Gelling Agents (eg. Pectin, E440) boost the consistency of foods, making them thicker to give them more body.
Are E Numbers Safe?
The designation of an E number is a statement that the substance has passed safety tests and is deemed safe to eat. However, the Food Standards Agency concedes that additives in certain combinations have been linked to negative effects on children's behaviour. Although single foodstuffs won't have such combinations in them, consuming a variety of foods with the different additives may lead to hyperactivity and even the condition Attention Deficity Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).
Some additives can cause allergic reactions, inducing asthma or nettle rash. Benzoates (E210 - E219), Sulphites (E220 - E228) and Tartrazine (E102) all carry higher risk and foods must be labelled if they contain these above a certain level.
Whilst parents will want to avoid over exposure to E numbers, it is impossible to avoid them completely. Additives are not always listed with their E number, largely because consumers became quite anti them during the 1990's, but they do have to be listed in the ingredients by name. Many E numbers are assigned to completely natural products, such as ascorbic acid (Vitamin C), sulphur dioxide (produced naturally during fermentation of beers and wine) and indeed many food colourings. However, just because these compounds are natural, it does not mean they are necessarily fit for human consumption in large quantities! Parents are right to minimise the consumption of E numbers as best as possible, but complete avoidance is almost impossible in this day and age.