Additives are substances that are added to foods to preserve, flavour or enhance their taste and appearance.

Some additives have been used for centuries – for example, using vinegar to preserve food by pickling, or
using sulfur dioxide to preserve wines. With the  increasing use of processed foods in the second half of the 20th century, there has been a great increase in the use of food additives (both natural and artificial) of
varying levels of safety.

To regulate these additives (and inform us consumers) each additive is assigned a unique number, an ‘E number’, which is used in Europe for all approved additives. Countries outside Europe often use only the number. These additives are listed as ‘generally recognized as safe’ or GRAS.

Safety: Mistrust of food additives in the 1950’s led to the precautionary principle to be put in place – only additives that are known to be safe should be used in foods. This led to the adoption of the Delaney clause stating that no carcinogenic substances may be used as food additives.

There has been much controversy associated with the risks and benefits of food additives. Some artificial food additives have been linked with cancer, digestive problems, neurological conditions, attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), heart disease or obesity. Natural additives
may be similarly harmful or be the cause of allergic reactions in certain individuals.

Dietician’s opinion: There certainly are people who are sensitive, intolerant or even allergic to some additives, and in those cases precautions must be taken, but for the general population the additives have been strictly regulated and are safe to use.

Also, with our existing hectic lifestyles, removing additives from our diets entirely is pretty much impossible. It IS possible to use more natural products that contain less/no additives but they do require more preparation time, which becomes a matter of choice and a decision that each individual
needs to make according to their lifestyle.

In terms of the foods that contain the most additives, it tends to be the ‘treat’ food. These foods should be eaten occasionally (generally my advice is 3 times a week) and in small quantities. If you eat lots of fruit and vegetables, have wholegrain starches at most meals with a small amount of low fat protein and/or unsaturated fat, you won’t be able to introduce many additives into your diet, so the best is to eat as healthy as possible most of the time!

Take a look at the table at what the different E numbers represent:

E Numbers
100-109 = yellow
110-119 = orange
120-129 = red
210-219 = benzoates
220-229 = sulphites
240-249 = nitrates
Antioxidants and acidity regulators
300-305 = vitamin C
306-309 = vitamin E
Thickeners, stabilizers and emulsifiers
410-419 = natural gums
440-449 = natural emulsifiers
470-489 = fatty acids and compounds
pH regulators and anti-caking agents
500-509 = mineral acids and bases
510-529 = sulphates
Flavour enhancers
620-629 = glutamates
900-909 = waxes
910-919 = synthetic glazes
950-969 = sweeteners
Additional chemicals
new chemicals that do not fall into standard classification schemes

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