E numbers refer to the classification used in European countries for food additives. When you buy food at the grocery store, the E numbers of the additives are printed on the label of each item. The numbering scheme is the same one followed by all countries as set down by the International Numbering System in the Codex Alimetarious. Some of the additives that have been approved for use in the US, Australia, Canada and New Zealand are not approved for use in the European Union. Although the US does not use the prefix when listing the additives, the “E” is still found in such countries as Canada, Israel and Australia.
A number always follows the letter “E” on food labels and there is a special category for each group of food additives. These categories are:
- 100 – 199 – Colors
- 200 - 299 – Preservatives
- 300 – 399 – Antioxidants and Acidity Regulators
- 400 – 499 – Thickeners, Stabilizers and Emulsifiers
- 500 – 599 – Anticaking agents and PH regulators
- 600 – 600 – Flavor enhancers
The food additives from 900 – 999 take in miscellaneous additives that do not fit in the other categories. Those numbers 1100 – 1599 refer to new chemicals that do not fit into either of the categories.
Take a look at a can of food from your cupboard to see what additives it contains. You may find some of the following additives listed:
- E101 – this is riboflavin, also known as Vitamin B12, but also acts as a food-coloring agent.
- E128 – red food coloring
- E200 – the preservative sorbic acid
- E251 – sodium nitrate, another preservative
- E300 – absorbic acid, also known as the antioxidant, Vitamin C
- E400 – a gelling agent
- E 513 – sulphuric acid
- E621 – monosodium glutamate, usually known as MSG and commonly found in Chinese food
- E901 – Beeswax, both white and yellow and used as a glazing agent
- E1400 – Dextrin, which is used both as a stabilizer and as a thickening agent