food labels

The E Number Demise

Growing up I can distinctly remember the negative attitude that everyone shared towards E numbers: “Don’t give him that, it’s packed full of E numbers”, or, “look at the amount of E numbers in that!”. In reality a lot of us don’t even know what these things are, we just know that we don’t want them anywhere near our food. 

Let’s start with the name: why E numbers? The “E” just stands for Europe. Every single E number is a code for an additive that is used in the EU. Food labels contain a list of ingredients and it is in this list that we see these E numbers. Technically they are additives rather than ingredients but they all get grouped together.

I guess the next question should be: what’s the point? Well simply put it is just the easiest way to group together all the different added colourings, preservatives, antioxidants, emulsifiers, stabilisers and thickeners. So every single E number will refer to an additive that does one of those things I have just mentioned.

E numbers have never really had a good reputation but it is time to blow a few myths out of the water. Firstly a lot of foods that claim to be “free of E numbers” are just referring to their food labels. For example, a food that contains vitamin C is likely to be shown on an ingredients list as ascorbic acid. However it would be just as valid as to put E300 on the list. You will never see it happen though because consumers are generally put off by E numbers.

Food manufacturers want to do this wherever it is possible. If they can eliminate an E number from their label and replace it with a name that the public will trust it can make a huge difference to their sales figures. In the food industry this is referred to as a “clean label approach” but the cynics among us might just see it as a quick con. It isn’t just E numbers they want to get rid of. We as a health conscious society do not trust overly complicated scientific words and if they can get rid of these too then that is great for them. So when I call it The E Number Demise, what I am really getting at is the way E numbers can be removed from our labels.

So these are just a few to look out for:

  • Black Radish Extract – Essentially this is an added preservative used to slow down the staling of tarts and therefore increasing its shelf life. The additive is replaced with an ingredient and then there is no need for an E number.
  • Tapioca Starch – Also known as E452 but sounds a whole lot nicer to us. All it does is help processed meat to retain added water. Seeing tapioca starch on a food label doesn’t throw up concerns like E452 though, does it?
  • Rosemary Extract – I think this one might be a personal favourite of mine. You read rosemary extract and you think of added flavour to your food, right? Wrong. By the time the extract goes into your food it smells nothing like rosemary and is only there to hopefully extend the shelf life of the product it has gone into.
  • Rice Extract – Much more appealing than E472e or E461 but does exactly the same job. In the food industry rice extract is generally used to extend the freezer life of the things you buy.

There are plenty of others to be aware of and it is certainly worth doing a bit of research. If you are tailoring what you eat to the work you are doing in the gym then you don’t want to be conned by cheap marketing tricks. So if you see an ingredient that you don’t recognise on a label, even if it sounds like it is doing good, then just do a quick search to find out exactly why it is in your food. Or better yet, try to make as many of your meals from scratch as possible and avoid all the potential confusion!


Ollie Lawrence