Additives and their E numbers

Confused about the E numbers on food labels? These numbers refer to the additives added to foods to preserve, flavour or enhance their taste and appearance, dietician Kim Hofmann of the The Lean Aubergine Dietetic Services explains.

Additives are substances that are added to foods to preserve, flavour or enhance their taste and appearance.  Some additives have been used for centuries - for example, using vinegar to preserve food by pickling, or using sulfur dioxide to preserve wines.  With the increasing use of processed foods in the second half of the 20th century, there has been a great increase in the use of food additives (both natural and artificial) of varying levels of safety.

To regulate these additives (and inform us consumers) each additive is assigned a unique number, an "E number", which is used in Europe for all approved additives.  Countries outside Europe often use only the number.  These additives are listed as "generally recognised as safe" or GRAS.


Mistrust of food additives in the 1950s led to the precautionary principle to be put in place – only additives that are known to be safe should be used in foods.  This led to the adoption of the Delaney clause stating that no carcinogenic substances may be used as food additives. 

There has been much controversy associated with the risks and benefits of food additives.  Some artificial food additives have been linked with cancer, digestive problems, neurological conditions, attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), heart disease or obesity.  Natural additives may be similarly harmful or be the cause of allergic reactions in certain individuals. 

Dietician’s opinion: There certainly are people who are sensitive, intolerant or even allergic to some additives, and in those cases precautions must be taken, but for the general population the additives have been strictly regulated and are safe to use. 

'Treat food'

Also, with our existing hectic lifestyles, removing additives from our diets entirely is pretty much impossible.  It is possible to use more natural products that contain less/no additives but they do require more preparation time, which becomes a matter of choice and a decision that each individual needs to make according to their lifestyle.  

In terms of the foods that contain the most additives, it tends to be the "treat" food.  These foods should be eaten occasionally (not more than three times a week) and in small quantities. If you eat lots of fruit and vegetables, have wholegrain starches at most meals with a small amount of low fat protein and/or unsaturated fat, you won’t be able to introduce many additives into your diet, so the best is to eat as healthy as possible most of the time.

Here is a list of the different E number groups and some examples:

E Numbers





100-109 = yellow

110-119 = orange

120-129 = red



210-219 = benzoates

220-229 = sulphites

240-249 = nitrates


Antioxidants and acidity regulators

300-305 = vitamin C

306-309 = vitamin E


Thickeners, stabilizers and emulsifiers

410-419 = natural gums

440-449 = natural emulsifiers

470-489 = fatty acids and compounds


pH regulators and anti-caking agents

500-509 = mineral acids and bases

510-529 = sulphates


Flavour enhancers

620-629 = glutamates






900-909 = waxes

910-919 = synthetic glazes

950-969 = sweeteners


Additional chemicals

new chemicals that do not fall into standard classification schemes

Sign up for the monthly newsletter of The Lean Aubergine Dietetic Services by sending an email to

- (Health24, April 2011)

Read more:

Allergic to food additives?
List of common food additives
Should food additives be banned?

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