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Adding to your Knowledge of Food Additives

Adding to your Knowledge of Food Additives

by FoodMaestro | 14 July 2016

By: Rhiannon Lewis (Student Dietitian)

Ever found yourself thinking about how much you know about food additives? Or what even is a food additive? Do you know if they are bad for you or not? 

It feels confusing to know what information is correct. Fear not! The following article has broken down the topic into easy to digest pieces of information to help curb that confusion...

What are ‘food additives’?

A food additive is any substance (natural or artificial) which is not usually present in food and is added for the purpose of manufacture, processing, preparation, treatment, packaging, transport or storage in a way that it becomes part of the food itself.  Food additives help to preserve the taste, texture and appearance (colour) of foods. As they help to preserve food they also help to delay bacterial or fungal contamination (e.g. bread goes mouldy less quickly after the addition of food additives).

What are they called?

The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has assigned food additives a code using the letter ‘E’ followed by a 3- or 4-digit number. Food additives only get assigned an E number by EFSA if they have passed safety tests to become approved for consumption in Europe. As many as nearly 400 are currently approved!

Types of E numbers

In general, the food additives are coded by their purpose (as seen in the table below) but there are exceptions. The information in the table below is not that useful in the practical sense for us consumers but we do like to know about the food we eat.

E numbers

Type of food additive








Emulsifiers,Stabilisers, Thickeners, Gelling Agents











*Others = Acid, acidity regulators, anti-caking agents, anti-foaming agents, bulking agents, carriers and carrier solvents, emulsifying salts, firming agents, flavour enhancers, flour treatment agents, foaming agents, glazing agents, humectants, modified starches, packaging gases, propellants, raising agents and sequestrants.

Colours – replace colour lost after exposure to light/air/moisture/ temperature change, enhance natural colours or add colour to foods.

Preservatives – keep food safer for longer by delaying growth of bacteria or fungi.

Antioxidants – lower the likelihood of fat joining to oxygen molecules in the air and so prevent food changing colour or going rancid.

Emulsifiers, Stabilisers, Thickeners and Gelling Agents – help to mix ingredients such as water and oil, or help to thicken foods.

Sweeteners increase the sweetness of food, sometimes through substances which are much sweeter than normal sugar.

With so many food additives in existence, wouldn’t it be handy to be able to look up the names of any food additives and their E numbers that you might be interested in? In particular, to check if something is approved by the EFSA. Well, you’re in luck! The full list (published on 30 December 2014) can be accessed through the Food Standards Agency (FSA) website (they work closely with EFSA) through the following link:

Does the list of approved food additives get updated?

In short, the answer is yes. The EFSA have been asked by the European Commission in 2010 to review all food additives by 2020 and the list will be amended accordingly based on scientific evidence.

How do you find out if there are any food additives in a food product?

Food additives are listed in the ingredients list on the back of the packet. The type of food additive will be stated followed by its name or E number. For example:’ Colour: Beetroot Red’ or ‘Colour: E162’.

In summary, three easy take home points from this article are:

  • Food additives come in many forms and are added for particular purposes mainly to preserve food in its best state for us consumers.
  • An E number is the code given to food additives approved for consumption in Europe which is under constant review.
  • You can find out which food additives are in your foods by checking the ingredients list on the back of the packet.

If you wish to find out more about the truths and myths of food additives, then keep an eye out for the next article in the series.