Food colouring E – numbers from 100-199
Colours are added to foods to make them look more appealing or more like the colour that consumers associate with that food. ‘We taste with our eyes’ it is said to describe the results of tests that conclude consumers believed something tastes better if it is the expected colour. They are also used to replace the natural colour lost during food processing or storage, to enhance the natural colour or to make products a consistent colour. They are even used to give colour to an item that might otherwise be colourless like the Skittles above. Some groups argue that adding colour is unnecessary and misleading as well as raising concerns over their safety.
The EU laws currently allow 45 colours and also control what foods they are used in and maximum amounts allowed – extremely small amounts in most cases. The EFSA (European Food Safety Authority) tests for safety (and re-evaluates these results) and issues ADI’s (Acceptable Daily Intakes) for each substance, calculating and allowing for a lifetime’s consumption (this includes the usual safety factor margin of 100 for all E numbers).
Colours commonly used:
- Curcumin (E100), a yellow colour extracted from turmeric roots.
- Plain caramel (E150a), which is used in products such as gravy and soft drinks
- Riboflavin (vitamin B2 – E101)
- Beta-carotene (E160a)
- Amaranth (E123)
Colourings for food are either synthetic, created from natural sources or ‘nature identical’. Natural food colourings come from plant sources such as fruit skins, vegetables, grasses and roots. The red colourant carminic acid (E120/cochineal) comes from the dried and crushed bodies of a type of insect.
Manufacturers often prefer synthetic colours as they are stable and consistent, usually brighter than the original, and mostly cheaper to make. It also means a colour, like the above-mentioned carminic acid, can be recreated without the inclusion of the insects! An added advantage is that the synthetic colours need no further processing to be added to foods as they are water soluble as opposed to the oil soluble natural and nature identical colours which need a further processing stage to be useable.
However some colours, especially those called the ‘azo dyes’ are associated by some pressure groups to behavioural problems in children (especially ADHD) and others with skin problems and certain cancers. The UK Food Standards Agency requires a mandatory warning of the presence of six artificial colours (that combined with the preservative sodium benzoate have been linked to increased hyper activity in children), passed a voluntary ban(!) and publish a list of brands that produce items without these colours.
EFSA reduced the ADI of these three of the six most contentious colours too:
- Sunset yellow – E110 – typically found in orange flavoured drinks and cordials, apricot jam, marmalade and packet soups.
- Ponceau 4R – E124 – (banned in the US as a result of its link with cancers). Used in dessert toppings, jellies, trifles, soups and salami.
- Quinoline Yellow – E104 – used to dye smoked haddock (an alarming yellow colour!) and egg products like scotch eggs. But more typically found in lipsticks and some medications
However, it did not reduce these three:
- Carmoisine – E122 – used in jams, yoghurts and jellies.
- Tartrazine – E102 which is the colour most strongly linked to hyperactivity in kids. Tartrazine is actually a yellow dye and can be found in a lot of yellow coloured foods (such as ice cream) and is the base for the creation of many other colours (used as a primary yellow).
- Allura red – E129, typically found in sweets, soft drinks but also in medicines.
However, the research and studies conducted have proved to be inconclusive regarding any links to problems caused by these colours at the amounts allowed…
Regardless, as with any of these additive issues, if you are concerned about the potential harmful effects then it’s best to avoid all foods containing any contentious additives…makes sense, right?
Sweeteners were developed to replace sugar after sugar was discovered to be the cause of tooth decay and linked to obesity related diseases. The idea behind them is essentially to provide the sweetness but not the same energy intake and still give the sweet aspect to taste that many people are used to, and perhaps even addicted to. Sweeteners cannot completely replace sugar as the sugar element in some processed foods, like cakes, also performs other functions such as retaining humidity (humectant) and provides bulk and structure to the finished product.
Typical products that use sweeteners heavily are:
- Sodas, alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks etc.
- Sweets/candy – chewing gum and mints are reliant on sweeteners
- Desserts, ice creams etc.
- Many baked goods and processed foods both sweet and savoury, including dressings, sauces and bread
- Breakfast cereals
- Many medicines
Commonly used sweeteners are:
(they are gauged for their sweeteness against sucrose – the chief compound in cane and beet sugars aka table sugar…yeah the white stuff that you all know I hate…!)
- Aspartame (E951) – sweetness value 200 times higher than sucrose.
- Aspartame-K (E950) – a synthetic compound that mixes well with other sweeteners to create either more complex taste or greater levels of sweetness. It has a sweetness value 300 times higher than sucrose.
- Saccharin (E954) – a synthetic compound that is rarely used alone now and 300 times sweeter than sucrose.
- Sucralose (E955) – the ‘strongest’ of sweeteners with sweetness value of 600 times that of sucrose.
- Sorbitol (E420) – carbohydrate like structure but only just over half as sweet as sucrose. A preferred sweetener for diabetic purposes.
- Xylitol (E967) – created to match the sugar sweetness of sucrose so it is much sweeter than sorbitol. Used in similar quantities therefore to sugar and sold in shops in bags to use as such. It is a naturally occurring substance in many plants and suitable for diabetics and even heralded as an active anti-cavity aid as it prohibits the growth of bacteria (it’s chemical composition means bacteria and yeasts cannot make use of it to ‘feed’ themselves).
‘Artificial’ or ‘intense’ sweeteners like aspartame, saccharin, and acesulfame-K are many, many times sweeter than sugar and are only needed subsequently in very small amounts. Increasingly these are used in combinations to create ‘superior taste profiles’ which mirror the complexities of the natural taste of sugar and require fewer sweeteners over all. The defense of their use therefore notes that this not only creates tooth-friendly foods but also reduces calories significantly due to the minute amounts used. (Those against them argue this ‘taste profiling’ also makes them more addictive.)
‘Bulk’ sweeteners like sorbitol (used as a combination humectant, sweetener and emulsifier), xylitol and maltitol (E965 – used as a combination sweetener, humectant and stabilizer) can have from 35% – 100% similar sweetness to sugar and so they are used in similar amounts to sugar. They are also tooth-friendly and are considered suitable (or at least more suitable) for diabetics as they have a significantly reduced glycemic index, although they have laxative properties if consumed in large amounts resulting in mandatory warnings on product packaging.
Sweeteners also became popular as part of weight loss programs. Sugar began to be replaced with non-calorific or reduced calorie sweeteners in many popular items (this was also a boon for diabetics (especially sorbitol) as mentioned above). Don’t be fooled by this though! I’ll be posting more thoroughly about this soon but research the arguments against sugar and the role sweeteners play in weight gain…it’s very interesting and it will surprise you! Here’s a taster…
The opposition to sweeteners is strong with pressure groups claiming no good and proper evidence exists to prove that sweeteners do anything whatsoever to help weight loss, specifically. In fact, they say the evidence is strongly available to show the opposite. In essence, the theory is that sweeteners cannot trigger the ‘reward centre’ in the brain in the same way as sugar and then the brain triggers further appetite stimulation to intake the calories (especially carbohydrates) that the sweeteners have created a desire for (in the mouth). Similarly some anti-sweetener groups say that the brain triggers insulin release just based on the expectation that the sweetener creates in the mouth, regardless of the reward centre, potentially causing insulin spikes etc. and all this means more sugars in the body that are not used and subsequently turned to stored fat. Beware…!
Some sweeteners have been linked to cancers in lab animal testing research further raising concerns over their safety especially cumulatively when eaten many times in many products throughout a day. Other noted issues are sleep and anxiety disorders, triggering epilepsy and interference with the progress and efficaciousness of medications – especially anti-depressants (sweeteners are often in medicines too). I’d say the evidence stacked against sweeteners (especially aspartame, aceslulfame-k, saccharin and sucralose) and their effects on fundamental body systems and functions are enough to avoid then until a convincing and conclusive study proves otherwise!
Emulsifiers are the chemicals needed to create an emulsion. Therefore an emulsifier is an additive that keeps two substances, which would usually naturally separate from each other, mixed. In food this is usually oil and water. There are oil-in-water or water-in-oil versions used*. They are used in many food products and are vital for the texture, ‘conditioning’, stability, even taste and indeed structure of the product, many of which would look very unappealing and/or be more vulnerable to spoiling without the emulsifier. Products like bread would be uneven (large holes would be visible) have less size and a drier texture without emulsifiers. Ice cream, margarine and mayonnaise are other foods that are completely reliant on emulsifiers for their structure and texture.
*The science bit : Due to emulsifiers having two distinct parts to themselves, one that likes to be in oil and one that likes to be in water, when they are added to either version (oil-in-water or water-in-oil) they will coat the appropriate element and keep it from clumping together and consequently separating into their own layer within the product. So, in essence, in water-in-oil emulsions the emulsifier coats the water molecules to prevent them separating from the oil and vice versa in oil-in-water emulsions.
Nature has many perfect emulsions such as the usually quoted example of milk, where the fat molecules are perfectly suspended in the surrounding aqueous solution. These are usually some form of protein or phospholipids (enables oil-in-water emulsion – e.g. lecithin)
Commonly used emulsifiers are either purified natural versions or synthetic versions that are ‘copies’ of the natural and have very similar structures. The most usual are:
- Lecithin (E322)
- Mono/di glycerides of fatty acids (E471)
- Esters of monoglycerides of fatty acids (E472a-f)
Similarly to the emulsifiers these are used to create shape and texture and therefore make the food look and ‘feel’ good. Thickening and stabilizing additives work with the emulsifiers to do this, especially products that would be runny and/or unappealing without them, or would deteriorate during processing, transportation or cooking. The longevity and regularity of the structure of processed foods relies on these additives and indeed marks the key difference between what we make for ourselves, without these additives, and the foods we buy fully expecting long shelf-life, the ability to freeze and store etc.
Without gelling agents many jams, jellies etc. would never set and remain stable (pectin added), fruit pie fillings would become runny and soak through the pastry long before reaching a consumer, and their use in soya protein products ensures that the soya product remains in tact even at high cooking temperatures.
Gelatine provided a key way to gel and set foodstuffs for many years but the animal source means that nowadays more often all-dietary issue inclusive alternative options are used, such as carrageenan. Gelatine is made by boiling animal carcasses (all bones and tissue) and the collagen turns to gelatin that can then be used as a powder or in sheets. Its effectiveness is also reduced by the presence of acid so pectin works better with high fruit content items such as jam.
The most commonly used are:
- Gum arabic (E414) from plant secretions (sap of the acacia tree)
- Guar gum (E412) extracted from guar beans
- Locust bean gum (E410) from the endosperm of seeds of the carob tree
- Xanthan gum (E415) from fermenting glucose or sugar
- Agars (406) extracted from specific red algae
- Carrageenan (E407) extracted from several types of, usually farmed, red seaweed (as used in the jelly crystals element of the trifle mix above*)
- Pectin (E440) extracted from fruit such as citrus peel or remainder pulp from pressed apples (as used in the Jaffa Cakes above)
- Starch (E1401-1451) isolated from many different sources such as potatoes, corn, wheat and cassava and from chemical modifications
- Carboxymethyl cellulose (466) made through a process of reacting cellulose with acids (a very common thickener as used in the jelly crystals and topping in the trifle mix above)
*The jelly crystals element of the trifle mix (shown above) also uses two chemicals disodium phosphate (a multi functional additive which can be used as an acidity regulator, stabilizer, emulsifier and/or to prevent coagulation) and potassium chloride (usually used as a salt substitute and/or and flavour enhancer).
Specific thickening agents added (whether gelling agents and/or stabilisers) are also used to provide bulk and fibre as their gum like properties are tasteless, odourless and have practically no calorific content.
Antioxidants E – numbers from 300-399
When foods are exposed to oxygen they begin to break down and decay (oxidation) and this causes discolouration, rancidity and can change/destroy the nutritional value of the item (e.g. they are used to prevent vitamins combining with the air and being destroyed). Antioxidant additives are used to stop or delay these processes. Foods made using fats or oils are likely to contain antioxidants too even if they are low in fat, as they help prevent decomposition especially when unsaturated fats are involved. The decomposing fat reacts with the oxygen creating the release of peroxides which we know by that characteristic rancid fat smell. Grim…
Many processed and prepackaged products contain an antioxidant; a majority contains citric acid (although vitamin C** (ascorbic acid/E300) is one of the most widely used). Citric acid (which occurs naturally in fruits such as lemons) is used extensively to prevent discolouration, help increase the antioxidant effects of other substances and, in some cases, help regulate the PH balance (marmalade, jellies etc). Ascorbic acid is used to prevent discolouration but largely to replace vitamin C**, or add it back in to, any products where it might have been lost in processing or needed for an extra vitamin boost to the product (fruit juices etc. especially orange juice).
**However, this is contentious (isn’t everything?!) as many noted experts have pointed out that added elements such as ascorbic acid, retinoic acid and types of tocopherol (…er…sorry getting carried away (showing off more like?!?) I mean, added elements labelled as vitamin C, vitamin A or vitamin E) are not the actual vitamin at all but just a lab created isolation of them (synthetic versions needed to replace the naturally occurring versions lost during processing – especially vitamin C which is destroyed by heat). The essential theory being that vitamins are complex compounds that need to work within a set of multi level parameters and so creating an individual molecular compound from them might well work as a preservative, antioxidants etc. but does not therefore consequently also work within the body as a fully fledged vitamin. I.e. you’re getting the vitamin just not any benefit. The American company ‘Real C’ use the analogy: ‘If you compare Vitamin C to an egg, ascorbic acid would be just the egg shell with nothing inside’. Hmmm…
There are only a few available to producers in the EU and the most popular/frequently used in processed foods are:
- Ascorbic acid (vitamin C/E300)
- Citric acid (E330)
- BHA (butylated hydroxyanisole/E320)
- Tocopherols (vitamin E group/E306-309)
BHA and BHT are considered safe in the small doses used by the food industry (for the protection of fats and oils in foods) as they perform better at high temperatures than their natural equivalent vitamin E, but they remain contentious to pressure groups.
Synthetic and natural versions are often used in combination as this can increase their effectiveness. The arguments for the inclusion of antioxidants extend past their usefulness for food preservation etc., but to their reported use in the body for fighting free radicals. These ‘unpaired’ electrons are a danger as they ‘attack’ other molecules to gain a pairing. Antioxidants, vitamin C and vitamin E especially, stabilize these electrons by ‘donating’ one of theirs and as they are stable in either state (paired or unpaired) they do not become a free radical themselves. Increasingly, however, the results from major clinical trials are claiming that too many antioxidants in the body can be dangerous. A good intake is found in balanced, varied diets with fruit and vegetables, but the imbalance forms when the ‘added’ antioxidants are also factored in from processed and fortified foods. Some of these research reports are arguing that some antioxidants do indeed become, at least temporarily, radicals as they are only neuralised by another member of the antioxidant team. Again, this supports the need for a balanced diet of varied antioxidants to ensure there is no imbalance in the levels of a particular antioxidant, which might leave the body vulnerable without enough other antioxidants to restore the balance. Think on…
MAP or EMAP (Modified Atmospheric Packaging or Equilibrium Modified Atmospheric Packaging) are further examples of antioxidant additives at work. The process essentially replaces the oxygen within the sealed packaging (meats, seafood, crisps, salad bags etc.) with higher levels of CO2 (anti-bacterial and anti fungal) and Nitrogen (inert gas used as a filler) and used extensively to prevent further ripening or spoilage and discolouring.
Preservatives – E numbers 200-299
Various ways to make food last longer have been employed throughout history. Unless another method of preserving the food has been used, like freezing or canning, then any food that has a clearly prolonged shelf life is likely to include preservatives. More traditional preservatives such as sugar, salt and vinegar are still used to preserve some foods but just as likely is some kind of added (probably synthetic) preservative. Most are added to prevent the growth of molds and yeasts but they have some anti-bacterial properties too.
Microbes are everywhere. They are in the air, in the earth, inside our bodies and in the food we eat. Microbes will multiply in the right atmosphere by their millions, and in a really short time, so the certain ones that break down foods are the ones the preservatives are attempting to stop or at least slowing them down. Different microbes react to different preservatives so there are many used in many everyday products and foods. Without them the food would not only deteriorate quickly it would also subsequently allow bacteria that cause deadly illnesses like botulism and salmonella poisoning to spread (especially in animal products).
A common example is that dried fruit (drying is a form of preserving in itself) is often treated with sulphur dioxide (E220) to stop further deterioration. One very important use of preservatives from a food safety angle is its use in processed meats such as ham, bacon, salami and sausages. They are usually treated with nitrite and nitrate during the curing process as bacteria in the meats can cause fatal food poisoning. It is often argued as an example of the benefit of preservatives, in fact, that the tiny ‘safe’ amount of the preservative used far outweighs the potential damage from the deadly bacteria’s they negate.
Many advantages are gained from adding preservatives and generally preserving food. It not only keeps food safer for longer from deterioration or poisonous bacteria, but this allows for increased availability of out of season produce or items that are not native to be transported. Convenience for the consumer is another added value (although can mean the price of the goods is higher) and not only does this mean less wastage but also prevents the need for regular shopping, which is an advantage to many.
Most popular/frequently used in processed foods:
- benzoic acid (E210)
- sodium benzoate (E211)
- potassium benzoate (E212)
- calcium benzoate (E213)
Sulfite preservatives (E220 – E224)
Propionic acid (E280)
- sodium nitrite (E250)
- potassium nitrite (E249)
Sorbic acid (E200)
Potassium sorbate (E202) – a synthetic preservative used for its antibacterial and anti-fungal properties.
There has been a lot of contention over the use of preservatives in food and there are a number of them in frequent use that have been targeted as not particularly good for us. They are regulated and maximum levels are set to well below amounts that could be deemed at all dangerous. Concern is largely over the accumulation of these ‘tiny, harmless amounts’ over time could increase the risk of cancer. Also, sugar and salt, whether added for flavour or to assist the preservative nature of processed foods, are also under fire. Their over bearing presence in processed food is a mainstay of the argument against it. I’ve discussed the horrors of sugar at length previously, here. And discussed salt here.
Common preservatives that are listed as those to avoid are nitrates (Potassium nitrite and sodium nitrite (E249 and E250) – preserve colour and help fight bacteria – stabilising and flavouring too AND nitrItes are considered worse than nitrAtes), sulphites (prevents discolouration), sodium benzoate (preserves against fermentation or acidification), BHA/BHT (preserves fats and oils – as an antioxidant) however without these there is no longevity to foods and there might be many more cases of food poisoning.
These preservatives are also argued to be safe (not only by the regulators and manufacturers but by some health officials too) and in some cases the preservative is actually promoted as beneficial. These are commonly used and include ascorbic acid (vitamin C)**, critic acid (and to enhance sour flavours) and sorbates (fight bacteria and yeast).
**However, this is contentious (isn’t everything?!) as many noted experts have pointed out that added elements such as ascorbic acid, retinoic acid and types of tocopherol (…er…sorry getting carried away (showing off more like?!?) I mean, added elements labelled as vitamin C, vitamin A or vitamin E) are not the actual vitamin at all but just a lab created isolation of them (synthetic versions needed to replace the naturally occurring versions lost during processing – especially vitamin C which is destroyed by heat). The essential theory being that vitamins are complex compounds that need to work within a set of multi level parameters and so creating an individual molecular compound from them might well work as a preservative, antioxidants etc. but does not therefore consequently also work within the body as a fully fledged vitamin. I.e. you’re getting the vitamin just not any benefit. The American company ‘Real C’ use the analogy: ‘If you compare Vitamin C to an egg, ascorbic acid would be just the egg shell with nothing inside’.
So, while it is more than likely ‘urban legend’ that bodies are not decomposing in the ground due to the large amount of preservatives eaten in a lifetime (although some sources are adamant it is true and it’s possible that they are adversely affecting the bacteria that usually break down the body after death) it is safe to say that they’re not exactly good for you. The body is still required to break down the chemical and foreign compounds and it would really rather not have to do it too often…and research shows the digestive system struggles to extract any nutritional value from highly preserved foods.