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.'