Food for thought: What are E numbers?

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E200, E320, E420 and E415... they regularly show up on food labels but what are they? The simple answer is: additives.

Food additives perform specific functions, such as preserving, inhibiting the growth of pathogens, or adding colour and flavour, as in the sweets, left. The allocation of an "E number" shows that an ingredient is accepted as safe by the European Union's Scientific Committee for Food and there are more than 300 permitted additives that can be used in the UK.

Additives may be naturally occurring, or manmade versions of substances found naturally, or artificial. For example, E150, used in sauces and soft drinks, is more commonly known as caramel, and E300, used to improve bread dough, is vitamin C.

Over recent years there has been growing consumer resistance to the use of additives, largely brought about by stories of unpleasant reactions, especially in children. In fact, these are much less common than reactions to foods such as milk and wheat.