Additives, preservatives and E-numbers

Over the years, there has been quite a bit of coverage in the media on the potential for food additives and preservatives to harm our health. As a result, most people have heard of them, but do you know precisely what they are and how they could be affecting your body?

Unless you are one of the few that eats an entirely raw or organic diet, you almost certainly ingest them everyday, in one form or another. So it is worth finding out…

The basics

As their name suggests, food additives are substances that are added to food to preserve flavour, retain freshness and enhance taste, texture and appearance.

Notwithstanding negative connotations with the word, not all additives are harmful and it is therefore important to make a distinction between artificial ‘man-made’ additives and natural food additives.

Examples of natural additives and preservation techniques include the pickling of foods with vinegar and the salting of meats.

There are currently over 3000 additives used in foods (and even health supplements!) across the world, most of which are unfortunately synthetic. This, along with the various health concerns associated with them, is one of the many reasons why so many people are increasingly opting for organic foods and organic food supplements.


Preservatives, colours and flavours are the best known additives, but there are actually many more categories, each tailored to a specific purpose:

Acids Acidity regulators
Anti-caking agents Anti-foaming agents
Antioxidants (man-made) Bulking agents
Colour retention agents Emulsifiers
Flavours Flavour enhancers
Flour treatment agents Food colouring
Glazing agents Humectants
Tracer gas Preservatives
Stabilisers Sweeteners

Processed foods

There is a common misconception that processed foods automatically contain food additives, but that is not always the case. For example, long-life milk is processed, yet it doesn’t actually require added chemicals to prolong its shelf-life. Unfortunately, however, the vast majority of processed foods do contain additives and preservatives and these tend to be made up of artificial chemicals.

As fewer and fewer people grow and prepare their own fresh food at home, and with the ever-increasing time constraints of modern life, there has been an escalation in the number and type of processed foods, and therefore additives present in foods – both natural and man-made.

The situation is made worse by the fact that food made on a commercial scale often has to be sent over long distances and stored for long periods of time before finally being consumed, which is where additives and preservatives come into play.

If you are unsure whether or not a product contains an additive, you can of course check the label. However, it is important to remember that some listed ingredients may themselves contain food additives without those necessarily being specified. For instance, a product may contain margarine, which in turn contains additives, but only “margarine” will be listed as an ingredient on the label.

This is why – aside from any nutritional considerations – it is preferable to avoid processed foods wherever possible.



As with “additives”, the word “E-number” tends to conjure up images of food nasties, but what exactly are they?

After an additive has been tested and approved for use in foods, in Europe it is given a classification known as an “E-number” (a number with an “E” prefix, e.g. E100), for the purposes of regulation and to inform people of their presence. In other words, it is simply a systematic way of identifying different food additives. Countries outside Europe use only the number, whether the additive is approved in Europe or not.

The interesting point to note is that, even natural additives will be labelled with an “E” prefix! The trick is knowing what the E-number stands for.

Safety of food additives and preservatives

With the growing demand for processed foods, there has been a corresponding increase in the use of food additives (particularly since the second half of the 20th century) of varying levels of safety. This has led to the introduction of a wide range of regulations across the globe, regulating their use.

The long-term effects on the body of regularly eating a combination of different artificial food additives are, unfortunately, currently unknown. This is largely due to the fact that most additives are tested in isolation, rather than in combination with other additives. However, what is obvious is that some people are sensitive to them and can suffer reactions due to their consumption. For example:

  • headaches
  • skin irritations, e.g. itching, rashes or hives
  • digestive system disorders, e.g. diarrhoea or stomach pains
  • respiratory problems, e.g. asthma, rhinitis and sinusitis
  • allergic reactions / anaphylactic shock
  • behavioural changes, e.g. changes in mood, anxiety and hyperactivity (including inattention and impulsiveness).

In 2007, a study financed by Britain’s Food Standards Agency and published online by the British medical journal The Lancet, produced evidence that a mix of artificial additives commonly found in children’s foods increases the mean level of hyperactivity. In a 2008 issue of its publication, AAP Grand Rounds (the American Academy of Pediatrics) concluded that a low-additive diet is a valid intervention for children with ADHD.

The key, therefore, is to be able to identify those additives that are unnatural and/or have a negative effect on you or your family – admittedly, this is sometimes easier said than done!

Food additives that are most likely to cause a reaction include:

  • Flavour enhancers, such as monosodium glutamate (MSG E621): These are most often found in, for example, crisps, instant noodles and microwave and takeaway foods.
  • Aspartame: This is an artificial sweetener, which is made of phenylalanine, aspartic acid and methanol (a type of alcohol). When broken down in the body, methanol forms formaldehyde (a cancer-causing substance), formic acid (found in the venom of ants and bees) and diketopiperazine (shown to cause brain tumours in animals). Aspartame is found in, amongst other things, diet drinks, yoghurts and sugar-free items such as chewing gum.
  • Sulfites: This group of additives, often found in dried fruit, desiccated coconut, cordial and wine, may trigger asthma attacks in sensitive individuals.
  • Propionates: This type of additive can occur naturally in foods (e.g. certain types of cheese). They are also common in bread. The effects are dose-related and might range from migraines, bed-wetting, nasal congestion and racing heart to memory loss, eczema and stomach ache.
  • Antioxidants: Although we usually associate antioxidants with their health-supporting actions, there are some that are added to foods as man-made chemicals and may therefore have a harmful effect on the body. Examples include Butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT) and Butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA), which are added to many foods to prevent fat spoilage. They are commonly found in margarine, biscuits, crisps and muesli bars, for example. They may be linked to insomnia, tiredness, asthma and learning difficulties.
  • Colours: The most common offenders in this category are tartrazine (E102) and annatto (E160b). Synthetic colourings have been linked to allergic reactions, learning and behavioural problems in children.

By (perhaps inadvertently) loading our bodies with synthetic chemicals and toxins on a daily basis, we can place a significant burden on our detoxification system, immune system and digestive system over time.

As a general rule of thumb, if you don’t recognise an ingredient or can’t pronounce it, avoid it – at least until you have found out what it is and what effect it could have on your health!

Via: specialistsupplements