A New Message for Consumers: E-Numbers are in Everything!

Manufacturers’ efforts to produce the ultimate clean label seem like the never-ending quest for the Holy Grail. The time has come to present consumers with the naked truth that there is no such thing as a chemical-free food. Even bananas contain E-numbers, if someone bothered to slap a label on them. In fact, a chemistry teacher in Melbourne has done just that on his blog. Could the industry run with the concept, prompting consumers to discover a whole new way of relating to their food?

E-Numbers Conceived to Spell Safety, not Peril

It is safe to say that the average consumer probably has a rather hazy idea of how E-numbers came about. The dominant public perception seems to be that E-numbers are a bunch of “artificial chemicals”, or, in other words, a class of legal contaminants that manufacturers are allowed to add to food products indiscriminately, and, ultimately, that they are harmful to human health.

That, however, is a complete distortion of what E-numbers actually stand for. In fact, they were meant to be all about ensuring that Europe’s food supply (the “E” stands for Europe) was safe for consumers. This unified classification system first kicked off in the 1960s, and only those substances which were regarded as possessing a sound scientific safety record were awarded an E-number.

Of course, science, by definition, is always open-ended, and new research has since indicated that some of the additives which were considered safe well over half a decade ago may have the potential to harm people’s health, especially that of sensitive population groups and if consumed in large quantities.

Examples are preservatives like nitrites (E249-E252) capable of forming cancer-causing compounds, sulphites (E220-228) that are of concern for those suffering from respiratory conditions and some tartrazine-containing colourings, which have been linked to hyperactivity in children. Meanwhile, controversy over substances such as the flavour enhancer monosodium glutamate (E621) and the sweetener aspartame (E951) rages on.

If All Foods Had to Have a Label

There are, undoubtedly, a number of unanswered questions as well as legitimate concerns over certain food additives. However, they cannot all be lumped into one bucket. Sadly, consumers remain largely unaware that innocuous compounds, like vitamins and minerals, also have E-numbers and scary-sounding chemical names. Take good old vitamin C, for instance, which also goes under E300-E305, as well as the names ascorbic acid and ascorbate. And then there is good old calcium (carbonate), sporting E170.

So, it is truly refreshing when, on occasions, the worldwide web, which seems to be so prone to spawning “information” in the vein of “food additive X will give you brain cancer”, is also capable of compellingly demonstrating a more reasonable way of conceptualising our food.

Australian chemistry teacher James Kennedy runs a successful blog that tackles the issue of “chemophobia”. He points out that naturally occurring compounds are far more complex and unpredictable than anything that can be produced in a lab. Kennedy has taken great pains to produce extensive “ingredient labels” (plus infographics and posters) for fruits and vegetables, illustrating that common foods are anything but simple entities.

For example, for blueberries, the blogger lists close to 80 components, including phenylalanine, threonine, palmitoleic acid, 3-methyl butyraldehyde, caryophyllene, as well as the colourings E163a, E163b, E163e, E160a and E306 (vitamin E). Pretty much the same applies to the humble banana, an egg and beetroot, all duly attributed their own “ingredients labels” by Kennedy.

Educators like James Kennedy should be lauded for their efforts in making consumers reconsider their preconceived ideas about “chemicals” in food. Indeed, there is nothing stopping the food industry from using a label comparison approach as part of a fresh strategy that goes beyond the current “clean label” mantra.

For instance, a manufacturer’s advertising could be centred around comparing the ingredient label of one of its food products with that of a common food item, such as an apple, a carrot or a walnut, making consumers see that spotting an E-number or a term they do not immediately recognise on a food label does not signify “man-made substance dangerous to health”.