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Food labelling basics: How well do you understand E numbers?

What does the ‘E’ stand for, and who decides whether they can be included in foods?
23rd Mar 2022
What’s the difference between a food additive and an E number? What does the ‘E’ stand for, and who decides whether they can be included in foods? If you’re unsure just what those E numbers on food labels actually mean, read on to find the answers to these questions. 

What are food additives? 

A food additive is any substance that: 
  • is not normally consumed as a food itself,
  • is not normally a characteristic ingredient of a food, 
  • is added for a technological purpose at any point in the food supply chain, and 
  • becomes a component of a food or its by-products, either directly or indirectly.(1) 

Food additives are sorted into different categories and functional classes, including sweeteners, colours, antioxidants and preservatives. 

In order to use additives in food, there must be a technological need for them and they have to be safe and pose no risk to the health of the public at the levels used. Furthermore, their use must not mislead the consumer. 

What are E numbers? 

The use of food additives is fully standardised across Europe and is regulated by Regulation (EC) No 1333/2008. All additives undergo rigorous testing, and must be approved by the EU and comply with the legislation in order to be used. When an additive is approved for use, it is assigned an E number. This number is a simple code, with the ‘E’ (standing for ‘Europe’) followed by specific numbers and letters. 

The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has the ultimate responsibility for assessing and approving these additives. The single, unified list of E numbers was first started in 1962 and then related only to colours. Since then the list has grown to feature preservatives (in 1964), antioxidants (1970) and emulsifiers, stabilisers, thickeners and gelling agents (1974). 

The functional class of an additive must precede the E number or the additive name on a product label (2). For example, ascorbic acid — also known as vitamin C — is a commonly used antioxidant, but often appears on ingredient lists as ‘antioxidant (E300)’(3). 

The names of chemicals can be long and complex, and this system allows them to be listed easily and consistently on food labels. Names also vary depending on the language used, so E numbers play an important role in making food additives universally identifiable across the multilingual EU. 

The full list of additives approved by the European Commission can be accessed here

Passing the safety test 

Whether an additive comes from a natural source or is man-made, the question of safety is central to the decision of whether or not it should be permitted in food. All additives must be authorised at European level before they can be used. 

The food industry can submit an application to the European Commission (EC) to add a new additive to the approved list, or to make an amendment to the conditions surrounding an existing additive. Following this, the safety of the food additive is assessed by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). 

The EFSA carries out a comprehensive risk assessment in which the safety of the additive is evaluated, taking into account the chemistry of the additive and all available research on potentially harmful effects in animals and humans. 

If an additive is approved for use, this doesn’t mean it can be added to any food, or in unlimited amounts. The legislation is very specific as to when an additive may be used and in what quantities, and this varies across different food groups and additives. 

The EFSA publishes their opinion on the safety of the additive and conditions of use, and maximum permitted levels in food are discussed in a Working Group on Food Additives. Next, the EC must submit a proposal to add the additive to the approved list to the Standing Committee on the Food Chain and Animal Health (4). 

Following a vote, the draft is forwarded to the European Parliament, which has a further three months to examine the proposal. Overall, the legal process can take a minimum of 21 months before the additive is formally added to the list of authorised additives, at the point at which the Regulation containing the necessary measure has been published in the Official Journal and the date of application has been reached. Only at that time is the substance permitted for food use. 

Labelling requirements 

Regulation 1333/2008 also requires that food additives are clearly identified on the packages of foods and drinks that contain them, a requirement designed to ensure that consumers should not be misled regarding the nature and properties of the foods they choose. Labelling requirements vary depending on whether the foodstuff in question is intended for sale to the final consumer, or whether it is in a form intended for sale to and use by industry only. 

In conclusion, E numbers are used in order to communicate across a range of languages and to help consumers make informed choices. The presence of an E number on the label of a food means that the additive present has been assessed and accepted as safe across the EU. 

For more information on food labelling, visit our blog


References: 
1. Regulation (EC) No 1333/2008 of the European parliament and of the council of 16 December 2008 on food additives. European Commission; 2008. 
2. European Food Safety Authority. Food Additives - European Food Safety Authority [Internet]. [cited 2018 Sep 19]. Available from: https://www.efsa.europa.eu/en/topics/topic/food-additives 
3. Food Additives and Ingredients Association. Food Additives and Ingredients Association - FAQs [Internet]. [cited 2018 Sep 19]. Available from: https://www.faia.org.uk/faqs/ 
4. Guidance on Food Additives. Dublin, Ireland: Food Safety Authority of Ireland; 2015.