Food additives and E numbers

According to AECOSAN, the Spanish Agency for Consumer, Food Safety and Nutrition, “Food additives are substances that are added to foods with a technological purpose (to improve their appearance, texture, resistance to microorganisms, etc.) at different stages of their manufacturing, transportation or storage. ”

The widespread use of additives in the food industry makes them subject to control mechanisms that regulate their correct use.

The authorisation to use an additive is subject to three conditions:

  • A sufficient technological need can be demonstrated and when the sought objective cannot be achieved by other economically and technologically usable methods
  • They do not represent a danger to the health of the consumer in the proposed doses, to the extent that it is possible, according to theavailable scientific data
  • They do not mislead the consumer

Likewise, its necessity must be demonstrated in such a way that its use entails technological advantages and benefits for the consumer. The reasons for this need should be:

  • Preserving the nutritional quality of a food.
  • Providing  food to a group of consumers with special dietary needs.
  • Increasing the stability of a food or improving its organoleptic properties.
  • Encouraging the manufacturing, processing or storage of a food, provided that defective raw materials or inadequate manufacturing practices are not masked.

In the European Union, the authorization of a food additive requires an assessment of its safety by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA).

When they become food components, they are considered ingredients and therefore must be included in food labeling.

The International Food Additive Numbering System (INS) has been developed by the Codex Committee on Food Additives and Contaminants (CCFAC) to establish an agreed international numerical system for the identification of food additives in the list of ingredients as an alternative To the declaration of the specific name, which is usually long and of a complex chemical nature. This system has come to be called “E Numbers Classification”.

As stipulated in the Codex General Standard for Labeling, identification numbers should only be used together with generic names that make sense to consumers as descriptions of the effective functions of food additives. For example, when tartrazine is used as a colourant in a food, it may be declared as “colour (tartrazine)” or “colour 102”.

Therefore, in relation to the form in which the additives must appear in the food labels, they are allowed to appear by their name or by the corresponding E-number, which is the code with which they are authorised by the competent authority . That is to say, when tocopherol-rich extract is used as an antioxidant, the labeling may include: “antioxidant (tocopherol rich extract)” or “antioxidant (E 306)”.

The labels appear as follows:

  • The letter E appears first. The fact that an additive has an assigned E number gives assurances that the additive has passed safety controls and that it has been approved for use in the European Union.
  • The following are the 3 or 4 digits:
  • The first digit indicates the category to which the additive belongs, the type of additive that is: E-1XX: dyes; E-2XX: preservatives; E-3XX: antioxidants; E-4XX: stabilizers, emulsifiers, thickeners, gelling agents and emulsifiers; E-5XX: acidulants, acidity correctors, anti-caking agents E-6XX: flavor enhancers; E-9XX: sweeteners, various
  • The second digit refers to the family of the additive (in the case of colourants it indicates colour, in that of antioxidants it indicates the chemical group to which they belong).
  • The remaining digits refer to the particular species and serves to identify the substance.

Here are 6 categories of food additives and their classification E numbers:


The practice of including dyes in foods has been existed for centuries, where some natural products like saffron were used in ancient civilizations. However, based on current regulations, many previously used dyes have been withdrawn from the market. Such dyes can be grouped into natural and synthetic dyes. The natural ones are considered in general as innocuous and therefore the limitations in their use are less than those related to the artificial dyes. The dyes are at the beginning of the table of Numbers E, covering the number 100 to 199.


We define preservatives as natural or artificial substances that are used in order to preserve food from the action of microorganisms, with the aim of preventing them from deteriorating within a certain period of time. Preservatives range from 200 to 299 in the E-number classification of food additives. Some examples of preservatives are Ascorbic Acid (E200), Lactic Acid (E270) or Potassium Propionate (E283).


We can find the antioxidants in the list of Numbers E, in the range between number 300 and 399.

Dr. B. Halliwell defines antioxidants as, “substances that are in low concentrations with respect to biomolecules that protect, prevent or reduce the damage they undergo due to oxidation”. These are substances that aim to extend the useful life of the product, delaying oxidative rancidity and therefore oxidation of food. In the field of antioxidants, there are also natural and synthetic. Specifically, the market for natural antioxidants such as the extract rich in tocopherols (E306) is on the rise, among other reasons, due to the noticeable change in society of seeking more and more natural ingredients. Regarding synthetic antioxidants, BHA (E320) and BHT (E321) have more traditionally been used by the food industry.

Stabilizers, thickeners, emulsifiers:

The first digit of these food additives in the list of E numbers is 4, i.e. those indicated with 4XX.

The purpose of these additives is to provide some texture and density. In the case of thickeners, they have the capacity of absorbing some of the liquid from food and are used in foods such as creams, sauces and shakes. Stabilisers aim to make the ingredients not dispersed in certain mixtures. Some thickeners such as xanthan gum, whose E Number E415 are widely used in haute cuisine for textures.


These additives have a very specific function as they are used in food to provide a sweeter taste. There are natural or artificial (synthetic) sweeteners and they have the highest digits in the food additive table, since they are within the 9th digit. Some common sweeteners are Stevioside Extract (E960) Or Saccharin (E954).


Flavourings are, according to FAO’s definition, “products added to foods to impart, modify or accentuate the aroma of food (with the exception of flavour enhancers considered as food additives under generic names and international system Codex Alimentarius Numbering – CAC / GL 36-1989). Flavourings do not include substances which have an exclusively sweet, bitter or salty taste (e.g. sugar, vinegar and table salt) “. Some flavors are glutamic acid (E620), calcium glutamate (E623) or calcium guanylate (E629). They share the number 6 as the first digit within the classification.

In short, it is important to emphasize that food additives are regulated by the European Union and classified in a list with the number E corresponding to each additive, in order to have a control over them, and that each type of additive is grouped within a numerical range.