The day I ate as many E numbers as possible

Multi-coloured sweets

Food labels such as "natural" and "pure" are confusing shoppers, according to a survey. But even more misunderstood are the E numbers that populate ingredient lists, says Stefan Gates, who set out to see if additives are as bad as is often assumed.

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Stefan Gates

At lunch I downed several frozen pizzas, then veered dangerously from Pot Noodle to UHT squirty cream”

End Quote Stefan Gates Food writer

Why would anyone do something as irresponsible as try to overload on sweeteners, flavourings, emulsifiers and preservatives, when food additives are a byword for culinary evil?

In Europe, these are given E numbers; in the United States and elsewhere, the full name is increasingly listed on food labels.

Yet how many consumers would believe that such additives may actually be good for us? The boom in organic and natural foods in recent years betrays our trust in nature over science. Yet a survey by Which? magazine has found terms such as "natural", "fresh", "pure" and "real", which readily appear on the front of food packaging, are confusing consumers because they are largely unregulated.

Conversely, it is the additives tucked way in the small print of a product's ingredients list that are heavily regulated. And when you look at clinical rather than anecdotal evidence, and speak to clinical dieticians, it appears these are actually good for us - and many seem to be very good for us indeed.

Find out more

  • Stefan Gates' E numbers: An Edible Adventure is on BBC Two, Thursday 26 August at 2000 BST

This flies in the face of popular perception, so I decided to use myself as a nutritional and medical guinea pig. A lot of fine and expensive foods are made using Es as preservatives, including the best wines (E220 - sulphur dioxide) and the finest hams (E252 - potassium nitrate).

But posh nosh isn't synonymous with additives in the way convenience food is.

So I stocked up on fizzy drinks, ready meals, sweets, frozen pizzas, crisps, battered onion rings, hot dogs (in bread rolls, ready to zap), packet soups and instant noodles for my e-binge. I also laid in a fair amount of salami and ham, partly because of the preservatives E250 and E252, and partly because if I'm poisoning myself, I might as well eat something I love.

The sweets contained a rainbow of colours, the pizzas a hodgepodge of emulsifiers, stabilisers and preservatives, and the crisps boasted a gallimaufry of flavour enhancers. And the instant soup? A melange of pretty much every E number under the sun.

Red or white? How food colouring fooled wine buffs

Are these actually bad for you? Words like "preservative", "emulsifier" and "stabiliser" sound bizarre and scary for something you put in your mouth. But lemon juice contains citric acid, a natural antioxidant preservative also known as E330. The emulsifer lecithin (E322) is in egg yolks. And stabilisers include E460, or cellulose, which comes straight from plants.

And the E numbered nitrate and nitrite preservatives in bacon, ham and sausages, linked to bowel cancer by the World Cancer Research Fund? Removing these would increase the risk of food poisoning caused by botulism, a virulent pathogen all but eradicated from our food, not least because a natural version - saltpetre - has been used for centuries.

Jelly to start the day

Then started the eating of the Es. My kids kindly made me some very colourful jellies for breakfast, then poured me a vast bucket of cereals, which contained vitamins such as E101 (vitamin B2) and E170 (calcium carbonate), a nutritional calcium supplement.

Ye olde food additives

  • Milk watered down to go further, then coloured yellow with lead chromate to look creamy
  • Highly toxic red lead used to colour sweets in early 1800s
  • Tea bulked up with gypsum, a chalky substance, and soot to improve the colour
  • Strychnine and sulphuric acid added to give beer extra tang

I washed this down with a yoghurt drink containing E410 - locust bean gum, added for dietary fibre - and snacked on a steady intake of Wotsits and Monster Munch - both shaped corn snacks - Pringles and prawn cocktail crisps.

By 10am I'd eaten enough for a whole day and felt bilious and shameful - but undeterred. At lunch I downed several frozen pizzas, then veered dangerously from Pot Noodle to UHT squirty cream. I then ate a few chocolate bars.

In the evening I was reduced to liquidising food in a blender to get it down. I necked chicken poppets mixed with battered onion rings, and dessert was a smoothie of cheesecake, chocolate milkshake and crisps - a surprising tasty combo.

By the end of the day I felt like a balloon of slurry on the verge of bursting. I'd eaten 50 different E numbers, but have I eaten enough to poison myself?

Chinese food MSG (E621) is demonised, but those sensitive to it may also react to glutamate in broccoli...

No, said my GP, Dr Jonty Heaversedge, who explained that the basic toxicology principle for safe consumption was a 100-fold safety margin.

Scientists work out how much of any E number an animal can eat on a daily basis before having any ill effects, divide that by 10 (in case humans are more sensitive than animals) and then divide by 10 again, just to be safe.

Many Es are so safe there is no acceptable daily intake (ADI) level - this is the case for 32 of my 50 Es. Others have strict ADIs, although these limits aren't indicated on food packaging. Of E202, the preservative potassium sorbate, for instance, you can eat up to 25mg for each kg of your body weight.

Despite my greed, I only reached 50% of my ADI on two out of all the Es I have eaten - annatto, or E160b, a natural yellow dye used in foods such as cheesy crisps, fish fingers and pastry, and E250, sodium nitrite, a cured meat preservative. On the latter, I was way over - up to 704% of the acceptable daily intake if all the ham, bacon and salami I'd eaten contained the maximum possible levels.

So, had I overdosed? Yes, but not on E numbers.

Parmesan and red wine ... or in Parmesan and cheddar cheeses

Dr Heaversedge wasn't worried about my E consumption, not even sodium nitrite (remember that 100-fold safety margin). What he was horrified by was the fact I'd eaten 418% of my recommended daily allowance of fat, 500% of my salt RDA and 218% of my sugar RDA. So the biggest nutritional culprits in my binge came in purely organic form and had no E numbers.

Our fear of additives can be dangerous - it belies the much bigger nutritional implications of unbalanced diets, food poisoning, physical inactivity and dietary disorders. You shouldn't eat too many E numbers, but then you shouldn't eat too much of anything - remember, there's cyanide in apples, but they're still good for you.

Below is a selection of your comments.

It never ceases to amaze me how much dietary advice is dished out when essentially, as this article rightly concludes, balance in your diet is simply the most important thing.

L Wainwright, Worcester, England

And E300 is vitamin C! Most people think Es is a classification system for chemicals instead of a multi-language labelling scheme.

Guy, London

For the bulk of the adult population, E numbers at normal doses have no appreciable effect. But for the few of us with intolerances and allergies, they can be anything from aggravating to fatal. Since about the age of 14, I've been dangerously allergic to most artificial colours, including the "natural" ones made of crushed beetles. Turns out the easiest test is to think whether anything in nature could cause the food in question to be that colour. If the answer's no, regardless of how it came to be that colour, you probably shouldn't be eating it anyway.

A Heighton, Leicestershire

My wife recently bought "organic, fruit, natural" snacks for my kids. When I read the packet they were basically jelly sweets, with citric acid, gelatine (from hooves) and sugar all there - not wholly different from sweets that are clearly marketed as such. We would never give the kids sweets as a snack, more a treat. There needs to be greater regulation on the use of these terms, and such "snacks" should be clearly labelled as sweets.

R, Scotland

Wasn't the high level of annatto [yellow colouring] consumed because of the previous outcry against tartrazine (E102)?

Andy, Hope Valley

As a diligent vegetarian in the 80s, I had to become a bit of an expert in what E numbers came from animal sources. I spent hours reading labels in order to avoid E120, E441 and E542, otherwise known as crushed beetles, hooves and bones. I even laminated a credit-card sized piece of paper to carry around with me. Thank goodness things have moved on and it is so much easier to avoid these nasties thanks to clearer food labelling and a greater understanding by manufacturers that the more people that are able to eat (and drink) your products, the more that you will sell. Now, if only wine and apple juice was always more clearly labelled. It is currently not a necessity to list whether fish swim bladders are used in the production of these.

Sara, London

Let's say it again, natural does not equal good, artificial does not equal bad.

Kevin Elliott, Oxford, UK

The problem with E numbers is not so much the additive but the fact they are added to mask poor quality ingredients to bolster the profits of the food manufacturers. As a retailer myself, I am not against profit in any way but the way cheap ingredients are combined and then masked with additives should alarm us all.

John Mclaren, Winchester, England

I have Crohn's disease and some additives indirectly cause flares (the sulphites, E220-229) by irritating the bowel lining and making me more sensitive to foods I otherwise tolerate well. My migraines are worse if I have regular consumption of aspartame. Many of the less necessary additives have side effects in those prone to them that would not show up in a normal case study. I would be all for reducing certain groups of additives where possible.

Gina, Leamington Spa, UK

Great article - on the one hand, E numbers shouldn't be top of our food demons list and they don't make food bad for you per se; however it demonstrates that they are commonly found in processed food which is bad for you. Avoid the E numbers and avoid processed food with lots of trans fats and salt.

Abigail, London, UK

After having completed a degree in molecular biology and biochemistry this is one of the issues which annoys me the most. People don't seem to realise that the vast majority of E numbers are either completely safe, or are so strictly regulated that it's essentially impossible for them to have any harmful effects. I'd be much more wary of "natural" foodstuffs, which don't have nearly so much control over what goes into them. The major issue with eating foods with lots of E numbers in them is that they tend to have lots of sugar or fat in them, meaning you take in the wrong proportions of carbohydrates, proteins and fats. And that's much worse for you than a strictly controlled chemical preservative.

Neil Hill, Glasgow, Scotland

All this stems from an ill-conceived, yet widely read book in the 70s call E is for Additives. Even those who did not read it accepted the media reports and simply assumed all E numbers are bad. A precursor to the MMR scare, where the media's lust for a good story came before any investigation of the facts, a lot of damage has been done. Undoing it is long overdue.

Kevin, Henfield

There may be some excellent benefits from many additives, but we have a daughter who has an intolerance for artificial sweeteners, especially aspartame and also sodium benzoate. The behavioural problems that these cause far outweigh the benefits. Jamie Oliver's programme on school food clearly showed the benefits of reducing all of these additives in terms of both behaviour, energy levels and concentration.

Stirling Harpur, Leigh on Sea

I used to work on a ward testing kids whose parents believed they were intolerant of certain additives, often tartrazine. Usually the complaint was of hyperactive behaviour. They would believe that the child's behaviour was obviously worse after drinking anything containing the additive, but when the drink (plus or minus colouring) was concealed from the parents, they were unable to tell if the behaviour was affected or not.

Kate, Manchester, UK

At last, a wee bit of common sense pointing out how misleading is the near hysteria about "unnatural" additives and E numbers in our foods. Let us hope this will go some way to restoring the balance needed in discussions about diet and we can concentrate on the real villains - excessive eating, too much sugar and fat.

Tony Clifford-Winters, Tillac, France

This shows how redundant some E additives are - why is is necessary to put colouring into pastry? It changes colour anyway - from cream to brown - when cooked. Are we really so feeble we can't face the colour of uncooked pastry? Redundant additives like this should be removed.

Diana, Bristol

Some 20 years ago, aged 5-10, I was diagnosed as a "problem child", with fits of anger, rage and sometimes even hold my breath until I turned blue and passed out. The doctors just blamed parenting skills or my personality. But further investigation - mainly by my parents - found this was a reaction to E102, which at the time was used to colour cola, orange juice and other food stuffs. As soon as E102 was stripped from my diet I was as good as new.

Rob, Sheerness, Kent

By the time most of these "natural" colourings etc have been processed they are in a no better state than the E numbers they replace - the processes used to extract them often leave them far removed from "natural". Whilst E numbers have a bad name, they are rigorously tried and tested. Once again the lack of consumer education on food shows the government needs to re-educate people from school age up. It will help consumers make informed choices about the ways food companies sell/market products.

Rachel, Manchester

It may well be the case that E number binges such as that taken on in this one-day study may not be that harmful. However eating vast number of added chemicals over long periods of time cannot be good for you - can it? I, for one, would rather grow as much of my own produce as possible in order to limit the amount of external chemicals I put into my body.

P Harris, Durham

P Harris, this points out the weight of evidence and clinical opinion suggests eating added chemicals is not particularly bad for you. Fair enough if you've got a gut reaction that "chemicals sound a bit icky and you'd rather not put them into your body" but you should understand that feeling is based on a personal reaction and not born out by any actual evidence.

Paul Hawkins, London

P Harris, I rather think you've missed the point. That nice, fresh broccoli you've grown and eaten contained E101 (vitamin B2 , or riboflavin) and E300 (vitamin C), along with vitamins A, B1 and B6 and folic acid, all of which are also used as additives. Just because some additives have dubious purpose or some possible link (in quantity) to some illness or other, it does not automatically make all additives bad. Also, they are not lead and therefore the body can metabolise most - I can't say all as I do not know enough, but it can certainly metabolise vitamins - additives so they do not build up constantly in your body.

Steve, Bath

Like so much health advice it's a case of sorting the wheat from the chaff. I personally am sensitive to some food colourings and they stop me sleeping. This is just an ordinary allergy like hayfever or aspirin sensitivity. Everyone else can safely eat their cheap jelly sweets with the greater risk being too much sugar.

Mike, Exeter UK

E numbers were created to make it easier for consumers and producers. Es are classified into type e.g. preservative and then given a number which allows for generic and local names. A good example is Vit C, which people think is a good thing, but perhaps not so if called an anti-oxidant or labelled as ascorbic acid. Thus the need for E numbers.

Steve, Sea Palling

To presume either all E additives are unsafe, or that all are safe just because some are would be foolhardy - and this is precisely the danger inherent in the public perception that all additives are much of a muchness that the E number system encourages. It would be much better to require the identification of all of them by their proper chemical or trade names. Then when we see ascorbic acid, cellulose or citric acid we instantly know it is harmless, whereas with aspartame or sodium nitrite or any of the azo dyes we can be duly wary.

Philip Graves, Stockholm, Sweden

E numbers tend to be prevalent in cheap, nutritionally low food. Whilst the E numbers themselves may not be harmful, the food it is in is. A preference for natural food, or food which we make from scratch using fresh ingredients can only be a good thing. Not only are ready meals and snack food bad for us, they are also on average much more expensive.

Dai, Lincoln

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