Want to know the truth about E numbers & additives?

Coloured Sweets

In recent years, food additives – also known as ‘E numbers’ – have been subject to intense scrutiny.  They’re almost impossible to avoid, with the food industry using over 300 of them in all manner of produce.  Many people are becoming concerned about the adverse effects that these flavours, colours and preservatives allegedly produce.  And, as a personal trainer, I count myself amongst them.

In 2007, food additives received a significant amount of attention in the media.  First, the Telegraph reported that the Food Commission had discovered harmful additives in children’s’ medicine, deemed unsuitable for infant consumption by the EU.  Yet, Dr Hamish Meldrum, the chairman of the British Medical Association’s GPs’ committee, denied that there was any risk.  He said:  “The amounts of preservatives and sweeteners contained in these medicines are very small.  Children fall ill fairly infrequently so do not need to take these medicines very often. The risk of an adverse reaction is therefore marginal.”

Chemical colourings

Later that year, additives returned to media attention.  This was due to a discovery by a research team from the University of Southampton, which linked certain E numbers to an increase in hyperactivity.  The study was striking because, for the first time, the results showed that it wasn’t just children diagnosed with ADHD that were affected, but those representing ‘the full range of behaviour’ as well.

The additives in question (sunset yellow (E110), quinoline yellow (E104), carmoisine (E122), allura red (E129), tartrazine (E102) and ponceau 4R (E124)) were subsequently dubbed ‘The Southampton Six’ and have since been the focus of great controversy.

When I train my clients, I encourage them to use as much natural food as possible; like carrots or raisins, instead of using synthetic supplements.  The reason for this is simple: we can’t be sure if synthetically produced foods are safe.  And, even in the face of evidence submitted by the University of Southampton, it seems that little was done to amend the situation.

There were calls to ban of the “Southampton Six” outright, but, upon reviewing the findings from the Southampton study, the European Food Standards Authority (EFSA) decided that there was no basis for such drastic action and settled for warning labels instead.  It was a contentious decision.

The research team at Southampton was disappointed by the EFSA decision.  They responded by commenting, “It is the view of the Southampton research team that since the colours being tested in this study are of no nutritional value, even the small overall benefit of removing them from children’s diets would come at no cost or risk to the child.  Under these circumstances, a benefit – even a small one – would be worthwhile achieving.”

Meanwhile, a strong case was made for the use of natural additives to be used in place of those that were synthetically produced.  The Food Standards Agency, who had sponsored the research at the University of Southampton, published a detailed guide examining how synthetic additives might be replaced with natural ones.

D.D. Williamson, a colorant manufacturer, supported the FSA guide.  In a promotion piece, they claimed, “Food and beverage manufacturers can choose from a wide array of natural alternatives.  Natural colours alone do not have the same colour intensity as synthetics, and some (not all) are less economical on a dosage basis; however, technological advances have reduced this performance gap.”  The company also published a chart, which depicts how natural additives could successfully replace those of synthetic origin.

Chemicals in foods

However, the Southampton Six are still in use.  Even companies that publically shunned them in the past are now phasing them back in.  In July 2012, The Independent reported that, as a result of trialing a product from the Coca-Cola Company, Burger King UK Ltd had reintroduced some of the Southampton colours that it had previously withdrawn.

As well as being a personal trainer, I also take a keen interest in nutrition and diet.  My clients need to eat well whilst they train and sometimes this means changing their diet in order to lose weight.  But this doesn’t mean that their food has to become dull.  The same could be said for products containing synthetically produced additives:  there are always natural alternatives.

Colourful fruit

It’s not just synthetically produced additives that are assigned E numbers; naturally sourced additives are categorised in the same way.   For example:  E300 is Vitamin C, E330 is Lemon Juice, E160c is Paprika and E948 is Oxygen.  Supposedly, the purpose of an E number is to denote that its corresponding additive is safe for consumption and has been placed under heavy regulation.  In fact, the ‘E’ stands for Europe and the terms imposed by the European Union.

Dr David Jukes, from the University of Reading, teaches that additives have been regulated for over half a century.  He says, “The first directive to be agreed [by the EU] was for colours (1962) and used the E-number classification system for the first time. This was followed by directives for preservatives (1964), antioxidants (1970) and emulsifiers, stabilisers, thickeners and gelling agents (1974). Adoption of these was slow and the resulting directives only specified the list of permitted substances. Member States were still free to specify which foods could contain the substances and the maximum permitted levels.”

However, for many people, the EU regulations provide little comfort.  Certain additives are derived from sources that some groups would wish to avoid.  Ingredients sourced from pork, such as gelatine, are not suitable for consumption under Islamic law.  But, since the true identities of most E numbers are not common knowledge, some individuals may be unaware that a whole host of E numbers can be derived from pork.  Of course, these E numbers can be obtained from plants, instead of pork, but it’s difficult to tell since most packaging only provides a number, not an origin.

Stefan Gates, a BBC Food journalist, has a very positive view of E numbers.  In 2010, he took part in a three-part documentary series entitled ‘E Numbers: An Edible Adventure.’  As a result, Gates concluded that the stigma surrounding E numbers was largely unfounded.  Defending the additives and their regulation by the EU, he stated on his blog; “The rules were developed to regulate additives (rather than encourage their use) so that dangerous substances like toxic lead tetroxide could be banned from use in children’s sweets, for instance.  In the past, food adulteration was a deadly problem.  E621 monosodium glutamate is anecdotally blamed for an extraordinary range of symptoms, but in fact if you grate parmesan on your pasta you are likely to be adding more glutamate to your meal than you’d ever find in an MSG-laden ready meal.”

During the documentary, Gates demonstrated that several useful E numbers (as many as 20) were naturally produced by the human body.  A sample of tears was used to produce E1105, a preservative used in both wine and cheese.  In his own sweat, Gates was able to find Propionic Acid (E280), a preservative used to prevent mould growing on bread.  He was even able to extract Hydrochloric Acid (E507), which is used in golden syrup, from the digestive juices of his stomach.

Sweets in colour

Understandably, though, Gates’ efforts are probably not enough to appease those who are anxious about the effect that E numbers may be having on our health.

I’m not convinced.  Although the EU regulations are there to protect us, the 2007 case of the Southampton Six demonstrated that they are not infallible.  Continual re-evaluation of E numbers and quantities may be the answer, but – even then – some may be dismayed by the constantly shifting goal-posts.  It’s also unfortunate that naturally produced E numbers are banded together with those of a synthetic origin.

Further, with the public left generally uninformed, apart from memorising the entire list of numbers and their corresponding additives, we’re largely at the mercy of the food manufacturers.  Whether or not they can be trusted would open up a whole new debate.

For more information on food, please visit my diet tips area. Or, if you’re looking for a personal trainer in Leicester, North London or in Bournemouth, feel free to get in touch.

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