Food Additives

Food additives have been used for centuries; for example, preserving food by pickling (in vinegar), salting, as with bacon and dried tomatoes, or using sulphur dioxide as in some wines. Food additives are substances added to food to preserve flavour or improve its taste and appearance. With the advent of processed foods in the second half of the 20th century, many more additives have been introduced, of both natural and artificial origin. Some of these latter additives are open to debates and disagreements whether they should be allowed at all. Moreover, many claim that certain additives may be the cause of certain health conditions, such as allergies, migraines, hyperactivity in children, and several adverse reactions.

While many websites and individuals preach in favour of complete abolition of additives as if they were toxic and lethal chemicals, one must understand why they are used. Some food additives are essential, others are beneficial to us but of course there are others which we can do without.

E Numbers

The E- stands for EC (European Community) and these numbers have been tested for safety and been passed for use in the EC. Numbers without an E in front are allowed in the UK but may have not been passed for use in all EC countries.

To regulate these additives, and inform consumers, each additive is assigned a unique number. Initially these were the "E numbers" used in Europe for all approved additives. This numbering scheme has now been adopted and extended to internationally identify all additives, regardless of whether they are approved for use.

E numbers are all prefixed by "E", but countries outside Europe use only the number, whether the additive is approved in Europe or not. For example, acetic acid is written as E260 on products sold in Europe, but is simply known as additive 260 in other countries. Additive 103, alkanet, is not approved for use in Europe so does not have an E number, although it is approved for use in Australia and New Zealand.

Are they safe?

Despite their safety pass by the EC a few people suffer from allergic reactions to some of them, whether the additives natural or synthetic. The E numbers are helpful to these people because they can easily see whether the food contains an additive to which they are allergic.

Many people feel that additives are sometimes used when there is no real need for them - for example, food colouring, but remember that most additives have a useful role. For example, preservatives help to prevent spoilage of food so that foods can be stored safely for a longer shelf life. Many food additives, derived from natural food products, including colourings have been added to the list to replace previous synthetic ones.

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