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How to Read food Labels

E-numbers identify additives in food and there are a lot of them. This is because food is, for example, coloured, preserved and stabilised in order to give it specific properties. If you would like to know which additives you are consuming, look at the list of ingredients on packaged foods. This includes all of the additives contained – usually at the end of the list.

E-numbers – clear and unmistakable

What are additives?

Additives are substances that are added to food for a specific purpose. For example, they are designed to make food last longer, improve its taste and appearance, or facilitate technical processing. Preservatives inhibit the growth of mould or bacteria. Antioxidants prevent fat from becoming rancid and sweeteners give food their sweetness.

Generally prohibited – expressly allowed

Additives are generally prohibited. They may only be used if they are expressly allowed, i.e. approved. In order to gain approval, they must meet three basic conditions:

  • Technological necessity: This is true, for example, if the additive ensures a constant quality or stability of the food.
  • Ban on deception: This means that additives may not be used to, for example, cover up errors in processing or the poor quality of raw materials.
  • Harmless to health: Prior to approval, the additives are carefully examined by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). The additive will only receive approval and an E-number once EFSA has carried out the examination and determined that it is harmless to health.

How are additives labelled?

The list of ingredients on the packaging also indicates all additives used that are technologically effective, listing the class name (which provides information about the function of the additive) on the one hand and the exact designation or E-number on the other hand. Here is an example:

  • Thickening agent (class name) guar gum (description) or
  • thickening agent E 412

E-numbers – clear and unmistakable The following class names are used: Dye, preservative, antioxidant, emulsifier, thickening agent, gelling agent, acidifier, acidity regulator, separating agent, modified starch, sweetener, baking agent, anti-foaming agent, coating agent, emulsifying salt, flour treatment agent, firming agent, humectant, filler, propellant gas, stabiliser, flavour enhancer. Preservatives, for example, serve to prolong the shelf life of food. Separating agents prevent salt from clumping and flavour enhancers accentuate or strengthen the taste. The E-numbers apply throughout the European Union. “E” stands for “EC/EU” or “edible.” A list of the additives (arranged by their E-numbers) including explanations, for example regarding the function, can be downloaded here for free as a PDF file. [Markets please update with link provided in your Market] E-numbers – clear and unmistakable

Food intolerance

Some additives may trigger allergy-like reactions in sensitive persons. Therefore, always check the label and, if in doubt, ask the manufacturer whether there are alternatives. For example, Nestlé SMARTIES chocolate chips are only available without artificial colouring.

Additives in unpackaged goods

There are also regulations governing the identification of additives in products sold loose. In supermarkets, for example, signs next to the unpackaged food provide information. In general, the use of any dyes, preservatives, antioxidants and flavour enhancers, as well as the use of phosphate in meat products, must be indicated. In addition, the “sulphurised” label is mandatory for food processed with sulphur compounds, just as “blackened” is required for olives or “waxed” is required for citrus fruits. In restaurants, food and beverages that contain the aforementioned additives must be identified. The information regarding the additive may be written on the menu or at the buffet.