Could E numbers actually be good for us? Simon Usborne tries to find the truth behind the food labels

The "E" in E number stands for Europe but it may as well be "evil" in the minds of a population force-fed scare stories about what we eat. "E numbers should be banned in food and drink, say MPs." That was the headline for a 2008 report of an inquiry by a parliamentary food forum, which wanted to restrict use of "substances of no nutritional value as foods or as ingredients of foods". The caption below a picture of a wired boy in a separate article about the inquiry read: "E numbers turn children into 'screaming monsters'."

When we see a string of codes on a list of ingredients, we know they represent additives. And so we assume they are unhealthy, possibly harmful impostors – the Frankenstein creations of white-coated lab technicians. But how many of us know the real names of, for example, E941, E948, and E290? Try the air we breathe (they are, respectively, nitrogen, oxygen, and carbon dioxide). E300? That's vitamin C.

Stefan Gates is a food writer and television presenter who has written a "myth-busting celebration" of Britain's most feared ingredients. Stefan Gates on E Numbers lists all 319 additives approved for use in our food, and charts the author's journey from E sceptic to E champion. "The idea of E numbers and additives was completely abhorrent to me," Gates says. "I used to come out with the usual simplistic statements that resonate with people – that additives are bad and will have your kids climbing up the wall."

Gates began to challenge perceived wisdom after reading a 1999 article by the American food writer, Jeffrey Steingarten. It addressed one of the most maligned additives of all, E621, or monosodium glutamate (MSG). The flavouring, which is used widely in cooking in parts of Asia, has been blamed for a variety of ills but Steingarten asked, "If MSG is bad for you, why doesn't everyone in China have a headache?" Gates wondered about other additives. "When I started digging I realised much of what we believe is pseudo science – the lingua franca of people like me who perch on the end of TV sofas. I started to ask people what exactly E numbers are, but nobody seemed to know."

E numbers are grouped by the Food Standards Agency (FSA) into the following categories: antioxidants and preservatives; colours; emulsifiers, stabilisers, gelling agents and thickeners; flavourings; and sweeteners. Among countless functions, they stop bacon turning grey, help jam to set, keep your bread from turning stale overnight or your cheese spread from separating. The European Food Safety Authority uses scientific studies to offer the European Commission and EU member states advice about which additives to approve or kick of the safe list. "Basically, researchers will take a substance and find out how much you can feed a lab animal before it shows negative symptoms," Gates explains. "They then divide that by 100 to come to a recommended daily intake for humans."

Gates cast himself as the lab animal as part of his research. In one test, he binged on junk food for a day in a bid to poison himself with Es. Gates says the diet of frozen pizzas, crisps and instant noodles made him feel "sore, sick, bloated and miserable", but he was surprised by the assessment of his doctor. Unsurprisingly, the author had eaten four times the daily recommended number of calories (and enough fat, salt and sugar to make a horse puke) but, thanks to strict regulation of additives, his doctor was not concerned about Es. In fact 32 of the 50 additives Gates had eaten were so innocuous they don't have upper limits of safety.

Regulation, of course, is the point of E numbers. There was a time when lead chromate was added to milk and whipped cream would be augmented with raw cow brains. Tea was bulked out with soot, and bread would be whitened with the ashes of bones. The 1860 Food Adulteration Act laid the foundations for today's regulations. "E numbers save lives," Gates says.

A key moment in the breakdown in our relationship with additives came in 1984 with the publication of Maurice Hanssen's E for Additives. Like Gates, Hanssen set out to educate the public. "It's a brilliant book that tells you how healthy many E numbers are," Gates says, "but many people read it as a scare story about what they were being forced to eat. It reinforced the paranoia and guilt too many of us have about our diets."

Gates uses a chapter in his book to look at the maligned E numbers whose reputations have given additives a bad name. The focus of the "screaming monsters" inquiry was six colourings often used in sweets. Researchers found that, together, they could cause low levels of hyperactivity in children (it was enough for the FSA to phase them out). Gates points out that MSG, meanwhile, has been shown to be safe in a string of clinical studies. Sulphur dioxide (E220), an even more feared additive, finds its way to number two in Gates's top 10 E numbers (behind Vitamin C). It aggravates asthma in 4 per cent of people who have it. And yet, Gates says it's "responsible for more pleasure than any other E". That's because, since Roman times, it's been use to make wine drinkable (by preserving it). "It's an example of an E number whose benefits outweigh its risks," Gates says.

As part of E Numbers: An Edible Adventure, a television show due to be broadcast later this year, Gates subjected himself to further experimentation. In one of the less savoury trials, he underwent liposuction to extract a third of a litre of fat from his stomach. "It was a vile, pinky-orange gloop," he says. "We took it to a lab and broke it down to extract the glycerol, or E422, which is used to help keep foods moist. And then we used it to make a cake. It was quite disgusting but the whole idea is to say, look, don't be afraid of these things. It's absolutely fine to avoid E numbers, although you'd have a tough job doing it, but let's understand them first."

'Stefan Gates on E Numbers' (Octopus, £8.99)