Food additives and E numbers
Due to growing concerns about the safety and potential health risks of food additives, more and more attention is being paid to them.
The question of their influence on the development and behaviour of children is especially relevant.
Food additives are in almost everything we eat, from soft drinks to breakfast cereals and even medicines.
And every year we take in more and more different substances – since the fifties of the last century, the consumption of artificial food additives has increased by about 500%.
The global market for food additives was estimated at US$ 101.5 billion in 2021 and is projected to reach approximately US$ 167.2 billion by 2030.
Food additives are different – some are completely harmless, such as E100 (Curcumin), others can cause unpleasant side effects, such as E102 (Tartrazine), which can cause hyperactivity and allergic reactions, or E951 (Aspartame), which can cause headaches, dizziness, nausea and other symptoms.
This article summarizes everything you need to know about artificial food additives – their effects, uses and possible health risks.
Plus, some helpful tips on how to reduce your intake of artificial food additives.
What are artificial food additives?
Artificial food additives are synthetic ingredients added to food to improve its appearance, texture, and taste, extend its shelf life, or improve it in some other way.
Types of food additives
Two basic categories of food additives are distinguished:
- Direct food additives – are added to food products during the production process with a specific purpose, for example, for fermentation or to improve taste, texture and colour, etc.
- Indirect food additives – become a part of food products during packaging, storage or other activities that are not directly related to the production of the food product itself.
In turn, direct food additives are divided into:
- Natural food additives – which are produced from a natural food source. For example, beetroots are used to produce natural red food colouring, and corn and soybeans are used to produce lecithin (emulsifier);
- Artificial food additives – which are synthesized artificially. For example, most vanilla extracts are made from synthetic vanillin.
Food additives are further divided according to their application:
- Anti-caking agents – stop ingredients from becoming lumpy;
- Antioxidants – prevent foods from oxidising, or going rancid;
- Artificial sweeteners – increase sweetness;
- Emulsifiers – prevent fat coagulation;
- Food acids – maintain the desired acid level;
- Dyes – enhance or add colour;
- Humectants – keep food moist;
- Flavours – adds flavour;
- Flavour enhancers – increase the power of taste and/or aroma;
- Foaming agents – maintain even gas aeration in the product;
- Mineral salts – enhance texture and flavour;
- Preservatives – prevent microbes from multiplying and damaging the product;
- Thickeners and vegetable gums – improve texture and consistency;
- Stabilizers and firming agents – maintain an even distribution of ingredients (prevents layering);
- Glazing agents – enhance the appearance and/or protect food by covering it with a thin waxy film;
- Gelling agents – added to obtain a gel-like texture and give food products shape and structure;
- Propellants – help push the product out of the package;
- Bulking agents – increase the volume and/or weight of food without major changes in the number of nutrients.
Both natural and artificial food additives must comply with strict regulatory requirements and safety regulations. And these standards are met.
There are a few problems with synthetic food additives:
- Many different synthetic food additives are produced. And even if they are individually harmless – we do not know how they affect our body in combination with other synthetic additives that we take in with other products;
- Most people don’t read product labels or keep track of exactly what substances and how much they are ingesting with processed foods. Therefore, the safe daily dose of a synthetic food additive may be exceeded;
- The composition and effect of many synthetic food additives are significantly different compared to their natural counterparts. For example, sugar and natural sweeteners provide our body with calories that are used as an energy source or stored as fat, but most artificial sweeteners do not contain calories at all and are broken down in our body into other chemical compounds or are not broken down at all;
- Some ingredients in synthetic food additives our bodies do not recognize. And if they are not recognized, they cannot be broken down and used or removed from the body, and we do not know how these substances affect our bodies in the long term.
Where are artificial food additives used?
Artificial food additives are found in almost all food products of industrial production, for example, in yoghurts, bread, salad dressings, sweetened drinks, pastries, chips, and protein bars …
That is, we want to be sure that the products do not contain artificial additives – we must use organically grown and unprocessed food.
If we want to avoid synthetic ingredients when buying products in stores, we need to read product labels and know which substances are indicated by each specific E number.
Since the mid-1980s, in all countries of the European Union, all food products that have been industrially processed have a complete description of the ingredients on the packaging. It includes standard codes (E + digits) that show precisely what additives were added to the food.
This system is also used in other regions, but without the letter “E” (Europe):
- E100 to E199 mainly denote food dyes;
- With E200 to E299 – preservatives and acids;
- With E300 to E399 – antioxidants and acid regulators;
- With E400 to E499 – emulsifiers, stabilizers and thickeners;
- With E500 to E599 – anti-caking agents and acidity regulators;
- With E600 to E699 – flavour enhancers;
- With E700 to E799 – antibiotics;
- With E900 to E999 – sweeteners, glazing agents, foaming agents and gases;
- With E1000 to E1599 – other additives.
The specific codes of food additives may change as the additives are reclassified.
Health effects of artificial food additives
For most people, dietary supplements are not a problem in the short term. However, about 10 to 12% of currently approved food additives can cause unpleasant side effects in some people, for example:
- Digestive disorders – diarrhoea and colicky pains;
- Disorders of the nervous system – hyperactivity, insomnia and irritability;
- Respiratory problems – asthma, rhinitis and sinusitis;
- Skin problems – urticaria, itching, rash and swelling.
It is important to understand that these symptoms can be caused by many different reasons. Do not try to diagnose the cause of the disorder yourself – you may unnecessarily limit your diet and neglect the real cause (disease).
Some common food additives that can cause problems are:
- Flavour enhancers – E621 (Monosodium glutamate (MSG));
- Food colourings – E102 (Tartrazine), E107 (Yellow 2G), E110 (Sunset Yellow FCF), E120 (Cochineal, Carminic acid, Carmine);
- Preservatives –- benzoates: E210, E211, E212, E213, nitrates E249, E250, E251, E252, sulphites E220, E221, E222, E223, E224, E225 and E228;
- Artificial sweetener – E951 (Aspartame).
The long-term health effects of artificial food additives are discussed mainly for their effects on intestinal health, obesity, cancer risk, and health effects on children.
It is undeniable that the number of various intestinal disorders is increasing (irritable bowel syndrome, Crohn’s disease, intestinal dysbiosis, etc.).
The fact that the share of ultra-processed food in our menu is growing rapidly is also undeniable. Consequently, the amount of artificial food additives we ingest with these products also increases.
However, so far there is little evidence that artificial food additives affect gut health.
Some preliminary studies in mice show that the consumption of artificial sweeteners can reduce the diversity of intestinal bacteria and theoretically cause digestive problems. But it should be borne in mind that the intestinal microflora of humans is very different from the microflora of animals, so additional research is needed to confirm or refute this hypothesis.
Some studies in mice have shown that polysorbate 80 (an emulsifier) and titanium dioxide (a food colouring) can cause changes in the diversity of intestinal microflora and exacerbate symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome.
But again, it’s not known if this effect applies to humans.
Artificial sweeteners are often used to reduce the consumption of sugar, which is one of the main causes of weight gain (because we consume too many calories with sugar-sweetened drinks, packet juices, etc.).
Sweeteners such as aspartame, acesulfame K, saccharin and sucralose are widely used in the food industry.
Despite being calorie-free, artificial sweeteners are thought to contribute to weight gain by altering gut microflora and causing changes in metabolism and hormone regulation.
The ability of artificial sweeteners to alter gut microflora is unlikely because most sweeteners do not reach the lower part of the gut where the gut microflora operates.
However, there are human studies that show a dose-dependent relationship between artificial sweetener intake and body mass index (BMI).
At the same time, some studies show that artificial sweeteners can help to lose weight.
That is, more long-term research is needed to be able to say something specific about this.
Some artificial dietary supplements may be associated with a higher risk of developing certain types of cancer.
Especially if your menu has a lot of nitrites and nitrates, which usually come from industrially processed meat.
The World Health Organization classified processed meat as a human carcinogen in 2015 after a growing number of studies showing a dose-dependent relationship between the consumption of processed meat and the risk of colorectal cancer.
Bisphenol A (BPA), an additive used in food packaging, is also associated with an increased risk of cancer and endocrine disorders. BPA is currently prohibited from being used in the packaging of children’s products, but it can still be found in water bottles and other packaging.
Some studies also link other food additives to an increased risk of cancer. However, it is not clear whether the cause is specific food additives or ultra-processed foods in general.
Although natural alternatives exist, artificial food colours and flavourings are widely used in baby food production, mainly because of the low cost.
There are reports that benzoates (for example, E211 – sodium benzoate) and other artificial food additives, such as food dyes, can cause hyperactivity, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or autism spectrum disorder (ASD) in children.
However, there is little research to support this.
Bisphenol A (BPA) is known to cause endocrine disruption, which can cause developmental problems in growing infants. Therefore, it is forbidden to use it in baby food packaging, baby bottles, cups and other products for children.
Most artificial food additives are considered safe for use by both adults and children.
However, remember that:
- Food additives, like dietary supplements, are considered safe until proven otherwise;
- Substances prohibited for use in packaging and products intended for children may enter their bodies “accidentally”. For example, if baby food is prepared from ecologically clean products, but the water for its preparation is taken from bottles containing bisphenol A (BPA).
Dr. Rebecca Bevans on the effects of artificial food colouring on children’s health.
How to reduce the intake of artificial food additives?
You are what you eat, so:
- Read the product composition, which is on all packages of industrially processed products;
- Be aware of different names and terms, at least how substances are labelled that you don’t want to ingest with food. Remember that some food additives have several names;
- Choose minimally processed foods and cook more yourself. The best way to reduce your intake of artificial food additives is to eat whole foods such as fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds and lean meats;
- Drink water. This is the easiest way to reduce the consumption of artificial sweeteners, which are usually found in carbonated drinks, lemonades, packaged juices, energy drinks, etc.;
- Avoid the “all or nothing” approach. It’s hard to cut out artificial food additives completely, and most likely – it will not last long. Make changes to your food choices and eating habits little by little – this will make it much easier for you to reduce your intake of artificial food additives.
More long-term human studies are needed to fully understand the effects of artificial food additives on human health.
However, there is reason to believe that we already consume too many artificially created substances in our diet that our body is unable to recognize and process.
Avoiding artificial food additives is difficult because they are found in most processed foods.
The best way to eliminate artificial food additives from your diet is to cook more yourself by choosing unprocessed or minimally processed foods:
- Dairy products and eggs – milk, kefir, plain yoghurt, cheese, curd and cottage cheese, eggs;
- Meat and poultry – fresh, not pickled chicken or turkey meat, beef and fish;
- Nuts and seeds – almonds, macadamia nuts, cashews, pecans, walnuts, sunflower seeds …
- Fresh fruits and vegetables;
- Grains – oats, brown rice, quinoa, barley …
- Legumes – beans, chickpeas, lentils …
Read product labels, choose healthy products, cook deliciously and enjoy life!
Diet and ADHD, Reviewing the Evidence: A Systematic Review of Meta-Analyses of Double-Blind Placebo-Controlled Trials Evaluating the Efficacy of Diet Interventions on the Behavior of Children with ADHD