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Food Labels 101 - The E numbers

We live in a world where food is increasingly processed and removed from its natural state.  It is a fact and one we must live with.  My view on this is to prepare as much as possible from scratch and return to the kitchen but there are times when this is not always possible.  If the thought of reading food labels and ingredients makes you despair, help is at hand.  The following posts on food labels will attempt to demystify the world of product and ingredient labels, to enable you to make an informed choice.  Lets start with the E numbers.


Emulsifiers are used principally to increase the water content of foods, thus increasing the bulk of the food (i.e. in meat).  Emulsifiers also help fats and oils mix with water, such as in chocolate, ice cream, salad cream, margarine and packet soups. 

Stabilisers make ‘watery’ foods thicker such as soups, sauces, pies and gravies.

Acceptable stabilisers and emulsifiers to look out for are: agar (seaweed), guar gum (guar plant) and starch.  Also: E322 Lecithin, E375 Nicotinic Acid, E413 Tragacanth and E440 Pectin.



Colouring enhances the appearance of some foods (such as yoghurt), or replaces colour lost in cooking or processing (such as tinned vegetables).

Acceptable colouring to look out for is: Beetroot red, Caramel (heated sugar), Chlorophyll, E160 Carotene (Vit. A) and E101 Riboflavin (Vit. B2).

Less advisable are the AZO dyes: E102 Tartrazine,  E104 Quinoline Yellow, E110, E120-E142, E150 Caramel Colour, E151-E155, E173 Aluminium, E174.  Azo dyes have been linked to behavioural problems in children as well as the development of allergies and chemical sensitivities.



Preservatives help extend the shelf life of foods by inhibiting mould (sulphur dioxide), bacteria (nitrates) or both (benzoic acid).  People who are highly sensitive to certain preservatives may suffer symptoms such as digestive upset, breathing difficulties or skin rashes.

Acceptable preservatives are: E228 Potassium Hydrogen Sulphite, E261 Potassium Acetate, E280 Propionic Acid.

Less advisable are all E200 numbers.



Antioxidants prevent fats and oils reacting with oxygen and going rancid.  They stop apple juice going brown, for example. 

Acceptable antioxidants are: E300-E304 Ascorbates (Vit. C) and E306-E309 Tocopherols (Vit. E).



Sweeteners are used along with or instead of sugar to add sweetness to a product. 

They are: E950 Acesulfame Potassium (acesulfame K), E951 Aspartame, E952 Cyclamate, cyclamic Acid, E954 Saccharine.


Other sweeteners containing bulk are often found in ‘diabetic foods’ and sugar-free confectionery.  These have laxative effects.  

They are: E420 Sorbitol, E421 Mannitol, E953 Isomalt, E965 Maltitol, E967 Xylitol.


Flavour enhancers boost the salty or “meaty” flavour of foods.

They are E620 - E635; E621 Monosodium Glutamate (MSG).


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