Since becoming increasingly interested in modernist cuisine (‘molecular gastronomy’) I have become particularly interested in the side affects/ benefits/ dangers of using E numbers in cooking. Commonly used E numbers in fine dining restaurants (and in particularly ‘molecular gastronomy’) include: lecithins, citric acid, sodium alginate, calcium lactate, agar, xanthan gum, gellan and malic acid. I recently began reading ‘Stephan Gates on E numbers’. I strongly recommend reading this book, I have included below some excerpts from the book that will give you a basic introduction into what E numbers are, but the book contains far more detailed and useful information:
What is an E number?
- E numbers are what idnetify the 319 food additives approved for a specific use in Europe.
- The E stands for Europe.
- Approval is recommended to the European Commission by the EFSA (European Food Saftey Authority), which analyses the research into additives, sets acceptable levels of them and gives specific details about what they can and cannot be used for (sweetners are not allowed in baby foods, for example).
- They are constantly being reassessed and some have been withdrawn, from food use, others added.
- They have different uses. The most important are colours, preservatives, stabilizers, gelling agents, acidity regulators, flavour enhancers and sweeteners.
- Some additives are naturally occurring and others are manufactured by the chemical industry.
- Our bodies naturally create 20 different E number compounds, whether or not the food that we eat contains them. There are Es in our blood, fat, sweat, semen and hair.
- Our bodies contain over 90 different E compounds sourced from natural unprocessed food.
- 47 E numbers are approved for use in organic food (which means food can contain these and still qualify as ‘organic’)
- E numbers are chemicals, but everything we eat or drink is a chemical, or more accurately, a soup of chemicals.
- The WHO (World Health Organisation) establishes ADI (Acceptable Daily Intake) by working out the amount of any additive that an animal can eat without having any bad effects, then divide it by 10 (in case a human is 10 times more sensitive than an animal) and then this figure is divided by 10 again to account for a range of sensitivities in humans. Even then the food manufacturers are only allowed to use a fraction of that ADI on the assumption that you may eat many products containing the same additive in the course of a normal day.
- What isn’t an E number: flavourings, caffine, cattle growth hormones, salt, mechanically removed meat, sugar, hydrogenated fats and trans fats.
- Although 7% of the UK think that they are intolerant of food additives only 0.01 – 0.23 actually are.
- MSG (Mono Sodium Glutamate) is one of the world’s most widely used flavour enhancers and the world’s most demonized food additive. However there is no robust clinical evidence to prove that there’s much wrong with MSG. Our bodies produce 50g of glutamate every day independently of food we eat. Italian food contains far more MSG than Chinese (its found especially in Parmesan cheese, tomatoes and mushrooms)
- Aspartame is a powerful artificial sweetener, and is one of the most thoroughly tested food additives in the world. It is used as a replacement for sugar in low calorie or diet products so that consumers can lower their calorie intake. But aspartame has been the subject of some very odd controversies since it was first approved in 1974 in the USA. In 1999 a (quite possibly fictitious) character called ‘Nancy Markle’ claimed that aspartame was responsible for multiple sclerosis, systematic lupus, birth defects and so on. This is all untrue, but the information was spread around the world by chain emails and became part of common paranoia about aspartame. Most food scientists laugh at the dangers of aspartame in colas in comparison to caffine (a psychoactive stimulant that can cause sleep and anxiety disorders, muscle twitching, insomnia, mania, depression and headaches but which has no E number)