E numbers: The facts you need to know
Many of us take the safe-not-sorry approach to food, buying goodies that use natural colourings and avoiding artificial sweeteners, but is it really necessary? Helen Foster investigates
Chemicals, colourings, sweeteners – all are food additives that go into processed foods. Some of them are naturally derived, from vegetables among other things, and some are manufactured chemicals – these include colourings, preservatives, flavourings, stabilisers and thickeners.
Since 1986 additives can be listed on a label by name or as an E number – having an E number means the substance has been approved for its intended use across the European Union. Seeing such a list, many mums will put an item straight back on the shelf. 'But while E numbers trigger a lot of negative emotions, an E number is just a code applied to a substance to identify it,' says Helen Gardiner, registered nutritionist and dietitian from HiPP baby foods. 'Not all of them are bad. Some are there for positive reasons, such as the antioxidants that stop food going brown.'
Not only that, some E numbers are things you might want in foods to boost your health - E101, for example is Riboflavin, aka Vitamin B2, and might be added to things such as cereal – while others are ingredients you might add to meals yourself – E260 is acetic acid, and vinegar is basically acetic acid and water.
Having said that, some additives do seem to have worse reputations than others.
When it comes to food colourings, those known as the Southampton Six are the biggies. These chemicals:
sunset yellow (E110),
allura red AC
(E129), tartrazine (E102),
quinoline yellow (E104)
ponceau 4R (E124)
were shown in trials in 2007 to cause hyperactivity in children with ADHD, and in 2009 in children without an obvious behavioural diagnosis. Professor Jim Stevenson from Southampton University, one of the lead authors on the trial, told us, 'Exactly why these colours cause problems isn't well understood. There are, however, a number of theories. One is that the body releases histamine when exposed to some food colours and this triggers behaviour changes.'
E Numbers: What you need to know continued...
This seemed to be backed up by the fact that in his 2009 trial he and the team were able to analyse the DNA of the children involved and found that those with a certain type of gene were more likely to be affected by the colourings. And that gene was linked to histamine (one of the chemicals the body releases usually as part of an allergic reaction). This genetic link may also explain why some kids might live on brightly coloured pop and fairy cakes and have no ill effects.
The good news is, these findings did trigger a change in policy. Now any foods made in the EU that contain these six colours are clearly labelled with a warning that reads 'may have an adverse effect on activity and attention in children' – saving you scouring the label to see if an item contains them.
However, in the UK many companies have gone one further than this and followed the Food Standards Agency suggestion that they remove the colourings from their ranges, full stop. You can still find them in imported goods, however, as other countries, including the US, don't have the same rules.
While UK authorities say all the other colours are safe, some colours used in food here have been banned elsewhere – a fact that might just make your ears prick up.
These include E151, a black dye linked to allergies and asthma, and E133, a blue dye also banned because of allergy worries.
Other colours and flavours (21 in total in a recent paper published by Polish allergy specialists) are linked to less severe, but often annoying sensitivity reactions causing symptoms such as an itchy, runny nose and watering eyes. If your child suffers from these things, you could try to spot patterns linked to what they eat.
When it comes to behavioural problems, Professor Stevenson recommends the same approach: 'If you suspect there's a change in your child's behaviour after eating certain foods, it would be worthwhile monitoring whether any specific food colours might be present.' He particularly suggests watching out for a preservative, sodium benzoate (E211), which he has also investigated.
Results were inconclusive and so, he says, 'As yet we're uncertain as to whether it does cause problems, but if you suspect your child might be reacting to something in a food then do check for this.' The research suggested that it causes a problemwhen sodium benzoate is combined with other artificial colourings.
Sweet or sour?
In a recent survey of mums, 97 per cent said they thought the sweetener aspartame (E951) should be banned from children's food. But why this should be the case is controversial. While only children with a rare condition called phenylketonuria (who can't metabolise the amino acid phenylalanine, found in proteins in many foods) must definitely avoid aspartame, the internet is rife with rumours that for the rest of the population it could be a potential carcinogen; that it's linked to other health problems such as headaches or depression and that it may impact on children's behaviour.
Sounds scary, especially when you read that trials earlier this year at the University of North Dakota on 28 healthy university students found that diets including only half of the recommended safe dose of aspartame triggered feelings of depression and irritability, and reduced their spatial orientation skills; two students also experienced memory problems.
On the other hand, though, other trials have shown no health problems, including links with changes in behaviour, and the last European review of the sweetener by the European Food Safety Authority claims that aspartame is safe so long as you don't exceed what they've deemed to be the upper safe intake – that's 40mg of aspartame per kilo of body weight each day. For an 18kg (40lb) toddler that's 720mg – the amount you'd get in around four cans of diet soda. No wonder it's tricky to know what to believe.
So what does all this mean – should we avoid aspartame or not? 'I think so, but not necessarily for any sinister reasons,' says paediatric nutritionist Charlotte Sterling-Reed. 'The fact is that sugar is contributing to childhood obesity, and while artifi cial sweeteners don't contribute calories to kids' diets, they do keep their taste buds primed for sweet foods – and that to me is the most important reason why we should avoid them.'
One of the big problems with additive research is that most of the time additives are tested in isolation where, yes, they prove to be perfectly safe. But what we don't know is what happens when we mix them all together in, say, a sponge cake with icing – or in our diet overall.
That was the unusual thing about the Southampton study: it looked at combinations of colourings and found that was when problems occurred. Things change as experts learn more about additive interactions – from August this year, ice cream companies can no longer use red dyes that are created in ways that meant they contained aluminium, as food safety experts have started to query whether they might contribute to unsafe levels of the metal in our diets. That has to make you wonder what else might change in the future. For that reason, it seems that trying to avoid as many additives as possible is the best plan.
Gurgle nutrition expert Sara Patience sums up the easiest way to do this. 'Go back to serving real food – making as many meals as you can from scratch using simple, fresh foods. It doesn't have to be pricey organic items – frozen or tinned vegetables will work just fine.'
Not only will this dramatically reduce the amount of additives your kids consume, it'll make their diet healthier overall.