What are food additives and E numbers?

Food additives are ingredients added to foods for various reasons – for example, to make them last longer.

An E number is a reference number given to food additives that have passed safety tests and have been approved for use throughout the European Union (EU).

Common food additives

You’re most likely to see the following types of additives on food labels:

  • Antioxidants stop food going off or changing colour, including foods prepared with fats or oils (such as meat pies or mayonnaise), bakery products, soup mixes and sauces.
  • Colours are used to make food more attractive. They can be natural in origin, such as curcumin (E100), which is a yellow extract of turmeric roots, or artificial, such as tartrazine (E102).
  • Emulsifiers, stabilisers, gelling agents and thickeners prevent foods from separating and give food body and texture. For example, pectin (E440) is the most common gelling agent and is used in jam.
  • Flavour enhancers bring out the flavour in foods without adding their own flavour. For example, monosodium glutamate (E621) or MSG is used in processed foods such as soups and sauces.
  • Preservatives keep food safe to eat for longer. For example, nitrite and nitrate (E249 to E252) are used in bacon, ham, corned beef and other cured meats, to stop bacteria from growing.
  • Sweeteners are used with or instead of sugar to make food taste sweet. Examples include aspartame (E951), saccharin (E954) and sorbitol (E420).

Additives and food labels

According to EU legislation, food additives must be shown clearly in the list of ingredients on food labels, either by the additive’s name or E number.

Food Standards Agency (FSA)

The FSA works to ensure that using additives does not affect food safety.

See the FSA website for a list of additives and their E numbers.

Read the answers to more questions about food and diet.

Further information:

Page last reviewed: 20/04/2015

Next review due: 30/08/2017