E numbers have been the subject of much controversy. Although the palaver has started to subside, opinion is usually very much weighted towards E numbers being unnatural, unhealthy and artificial (at best). At worst, the media-led belief is that the faintest whiff of an E number will make any small child destructive on the scale of a cross between a hurricane, and a kitchen-seeking missile. Although much of this latter observation has since been attributed to dubious parenting, the grain of truth that started it all is still licensed for food use in the UK and in America.

In the late 70s and early 80s it was found that tartrazine (Figure 1) could elevate the symptoms of hyperactivity in children who were already prone to the condition1-5.  It has not been found to cause the condition in healthy children, thus separating the effects of such scurrilous indulgences as television, the Internet, and worst of all, pocket money, from the attention deficit condition. The problem for the food industry became that tartrazine and a small handful of others were recorded in the popular press as being both ostensibly bad for human health and representative of E numbers in general. This has led to an apparent disappearance of E numbers from our foods comparable in speed to the ejection of a celebrity magazine from a nunnery.

Figure 1–Tartrazine, E102.  Chemical structure (left), with a bottle of the compound in concentrated form (right).

It should be noted however that the ‘E’ of this name stands for ‘European’ and so although many of these compounds are used elsewhere in the world, in America and in China for example, they are not classified under this system. Wherever you live in the world, at least some of these compounds appear in your food be you fruitarian, fatty or a face in between.

Deceptive labelling

However, food manufacturers, those most cunning of foxes, are not that easily put off from using the established tools of their trade. They had a set of ingredients that have been tested in every orifice of every rodent known to man. And probably in man as well, though those tests are not recorded. This set of raw materials for producing food could not be changed drastically if the manufacture of these products was still to be economical. So what they did was simply list the name of the compound instead of its E number. Despite how it may come across, it is legally sound, and despite the media dislike of E numbers that has precipitated their removal by name from lists of ingredients on foods, they are still there; even in ones that are openly touted as natural and healthy. For example, if you compare the lists of ingredients by name with the lists of currently licensed additives in the EU, in many foods the majority of the ingredients will also appear on the list of E numbers or food additives. Two examples are shown in Table 1.

Table 1.  A tabulated form of the ingredients of two pieces of confectionery available in the UK.  Although perfectly safe, the majority of ingredients are E numbers, though none are named as such on the packet.

Although it may seem a slight-of-spatula to use the names alone, arguably, an ‘E numbering’ code is not the most explicit way of referring to a compound. No one would expect a consumer to memorise this 1,500-strong list, less still be able to recall it when buying jelly, cheap cider or meals for one in a supermarket. Even with a smartphone to hand, it is hardly accessible. Equally, the names of the compounds are probably as much a mystery to anybody who has not seen more of a laboratory than a nightclub. Also, as we can imagine, referring to E number categorisations is also not in keeping with the idea of ‘natural’ or ‘healthy’ that many food companies wish to promote.


The most poisonous things on Earth…

Both of these words, ‘natural’ and ‘healthy’, although they sound good in the context of food, are sadly misguided. The most poisonous things on this Earth are from ‘natural’ sources – poisoned ivy, curare (poison-tipped darts), botulism and reality television. Fortunately the last one is not edible. However, ‘healthy’ is more subtly misleading. What is healthy or nutritious for a three-year-old child, a lactating woman, or a man in his 70s is demonstrably different. What we might regard as fine for someone of average weight, might be dangerous for someone who puts Sumo wrestlers to shame. It will also be different if any one of those has a medical condition of certain kinds. For example, some cases of elevated blood pressure have been found to be stabilised or reduced if the patient’s intake of salt is reduced. This is pleasingly irrelevant to anyone not sensitive to such in-take, however it has led to a national panic about anything with salt in it. Sufficient water will allow the body to wash away pretty much anything it does not want, including salt – curare and reality television excepted, however.

This washing of the system is a normal occurrence, and is one that allows us to maintain life within our bodies, a situation known as homeostasis. This word just means a consistent set of conditions within the body. This applies to things like body temperature and the concentration of the blood. The upshot of the salty-food thing is, that if you have not been medically advised to cut down your salt intake, you do not need to if you are drinking sufficient water regularly. In fact it is fair to say that your body needs the sodium and chloride ions found in table salt in order to function.   Medical conditions that are sensitive to salt intake include high blood pressure (hypertension), and certain kidney and heart problems.



1              D. W. Schab and N. T. Trinh, J. Dev. and Behav. Paed., 2004, 25, 423.

2              B. Bateman, J. O. Warner, E. Hutchinson, T. Dean, P. Rowlandson, C. Gant, J. Grundy, C. Fitzgerald, and J. Stevenson, Archives of Disease in Childhood, 2004, 89, 506.

3              P. A. Eigenmann and C. A. Haenggeli, The Lancet, 2004, 364, 2.

4              B. Weiss, Food and Chemical Toxicology, 1988, 26, 575.

5              F. Levy, S. Dumbrell, G. Hobbes, M. Ryan, N. Wilton, and J. M. Woodhill, Medical Journal of Australia, 1978, 1, 61.