In the past, our ancestors milked cows or picked vegetables and consumed them immediately or kept them refrigerated at home. Today, the food we eat must survive long journeys and remain intact. It must look good to attract the attention of people, the customers.
Basic preservatives, salt or citric acid, are not enough anymore and artificial substances must be used. In the European Union, each additive added has an E denomination, therefore known as Es.
- E100 to E199 are colourings
- E200-E299 are preservatives that prevent structural changes and loss of colour
- E300-E399 are antioxidants and acidity regulators
- E400-E499 are solidifying agents, thickeners and emulsifiers that keep separate parts together (i.e. holding fat and water together)
- E500-E599 are acidity regulators and they prevent formation of clods
- E600-E699 add taste
- E700-E799 are antibiotics for the prevention of bacterial diseases (including penicillin)
- E900-E999 are other substances such as glazing and sweeteners
Most of the preservatives are safe and are approved by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). Yet some of them can have unwanted effects, mainly if consumed in large quantities, and some might also accentuate allergies.
The solution is to avoid processed foods and favour fresh ones. When reading food labels keep in mind: the less ingredients, the better. Here is a list of the Es that you should avoid.
E102 (tartrazine) and E104 (quinoline yellow) increase the risk of asthma and hyperactivity in children, whilst E110 (orange) and E124 (red colour) can be carcinogenic (cancer inducing). These are found in ketchups, canned fruit and fizzy drinks.
Fructose syrup is added to juices, fizzy drinks, cereals, ketchup, yogurts, chips, spreads and dressings. It is a cheaper but less healthy alternative to table sugar. Too much fructose increases the risk of obesity, diabetes and can be damaging to the liver.
Artificial sweetener (E951) is often used in ‘light’ drinks with low sugar content. It can cause headaches and mood swings. A study suggests it might even have carcinogenic effects, yet it’s important to note that studies on this topic have not been consistent.
Benzoates are primarily added to acidic foods to enhance their flavour. Benzoates (E210-E213) cause hyperactivity and, in combination with ascorbic acid (vitamin C), can be carcinogenic. They are used in non-alcoholic drinks, sauces, fruit juices, jams, cheeses, margarine and in cod salad.
Sodium nitrate (E250, E250) is used as a preservative in meat products to keep the taste and act against bacteria. You can find it in sausages, salamis and canned meat. In the meat it can break down into nitrite and react with the protein to produce carcinogenic compounds.
Trans-fats are found in sweets, biscuits, cakes, fried products (donuts and fries), low-fat butters and butter replacements, and fried fish and shrimps. They are produced from polyunsaturated fats by hydrogenation. (Hydrogenation converts liquid vegetable oils into solid or semi-solid fats, such as those present in margarine.)
They are a less stable form of saturated fats and were proven to have negative effects on good HLD cholesterol, blood pressure and obesity. Watch out for partially or fully hydrogenated fats on food labels.
- WebMD: Better Information. Better Health. The Truth About 7 Common Food Additives. https://www.webmd.com/diet/features/the-truth-about-seven-common-food-additives#1
- The UK Food Guide: additives, E numbers, foos news, coockery. E Number Index. http://www.ukfoodguide.net