E 218, E 202, E 406 – Have you ever wondered what’s behind the numbers with the “E”? They are additives in food. Not all are harmless.

The list of e-numbers seems almost infinite, leaving the consumer amazed and perhaps even shocked. Well over 300 additives are approved in Germany and Europe. By 1993 Germany had only 265, and then the laws in the EU were aligned and the number of additives increased. All these additives have been tested by the European Food Authority and are available on the packaging. E “stands for Europe

In the thicket of “E numbers”

For the consumer, it’s almost impossible to see through the E-numbers – not to mention which ingredients are behind and how they work. Good and harmless or bad and hazardous to health? “Of course, if you’re a consumer at the grocery store, it’s very confusing, sometimes an ‘E’ on the product is an ’emulsifier’ or ‘preservative’.
The consumer then knows, for example, that a food is colored and that it does not look so good due to the ingredients, but because dyes are in it, “explains biologist Christian Niemeyer, who heads the German Additives Museum in Hamburg. A supermarket is modeled on the hundred square meters of space, and the visitor can find out which additives are currently being used in which products, as well as the pros and cons.

Flash Gallery Deutsches Zusatzstoffmuseum (Deutsches Zusatzstoffmuseum)The Deutsches Zusatzstoffmuseum offers insights into the food industry

What is what and what for?

Additives are divided into different groups. These include, for example:
Dyes – they ensure that food gets an appetizing and appealing color.
Preservatives – They are designed to extend the shelf life of the product. This is achieved by bacteria, yeast and mold. For example, food can be transported over longer distances.
Antioxidants – These include, for example, vitamin C, vitamin E, trace elements such as zinc and selenium. In part, they are complex chemical compounds that are artificially produced but also occur in nature. They prevent or delay oxidation.
Thickeners and moisturizers – they make sauces creamy, soups and desserts thick, and they increase the viscosity of a food. Thickeners are commonly used in light products because they create the popular “creamy” texture.
They extend the shelf life of foods, because many microorganisms are sensitive to acid. Acidulants can also create or enhance taste.
flavor enhancer
Different treatment methods can affect the original taste of food. Flavor enhancers intensify flavors that are only present in a weakened form.
Sugar substitutes and sweeteners
The so-called sugar substitutes are based for example on sweet plant juices. In contrast, sweeteners usually have no natural counterpart. They are many times sweeter than sugar, sometimes up to 3,000 times. 

Away from the E numbers

Food additives are said to improve various properties of foods, but not only. “One wants to achieve an improved, technical function with these materials, for example, to make production easier, for example to make [food] machine-accessible.” This applies to industrially produced foods such as soups or dough, “says Christian Niemeyer. “If such a substance then remains in the food, this must also be marked accordingly.”

Mother with child shopping in a supermarket (picture-alliance / imageBroker)

Keeping track is not easy

Consumers have become more critical of food in recent years. Many fear that behind the E-numbers only hide dangerous additives. The industry reacted to that. “At the moment, there is a clear trend, and the industry has realized that it’s better not to write so many e-numbers in the content and use more natural-sounding terms instead.” For example, in the word ‘citric acid’, the consumer has a certain image in mind, “says Niemeyer.

And this should possibly produce a more positive association than the name E 330. For example, many foods now contain terms such as ‘orange aroma, dye carotene’ in addition to ‘stabilizers E 412, E 414 and E 445’. However, it would be difficult if names such as Quillaja extract (E 999), methyl 4-hydroxybenzoate (E 219), methyl 4-hydroxybenzoate (E 218) or calcium disodium ethylenediaminetetraacetate (E 385) prevailed instead of the E numbers.

 Attention dangerous!

Some of the additives are chemically produced and pose health risks. Limit values ​​and tolerances are specified for a number of additives and these are enshrined in law. Many of the food additives are suspected of causing allergies or promoting the development of cancer.
Some substances are now prohibited or to be used with extreme caution. This includes the dye amaranth (E 123), [not to be confused with the plant of the same name ] an artificial substance. It is resistant to light, heat and acids, and – it has proven to be mutagenic. Amaranth can also trigger pseudoallergies. Nevertheless, the substance is still allowed, albeit for only a few foods. These are liqueurs, spirits and caviar. The German Museum of Additives rates the substance as “unpleasant”.

Cancer Cancer Cell Illustration (Imago / Science Photo Library)

Some additives are suspected to be carcinogenic

Boric acid can be really dangerous, but it can still be used. It is an artificial substance that preserves food. Boric acid can accumulate in the body and even cause organ damage. But – do not worry, boric acid also has good properties. In the household she does good service as a mild disinfectant.

No wonder, then, that it can lead to nausea and vomiting at high concentrations. As an additive, E 284 – boric acid or borax – is still approved as an additive for real caviar, to achieve a longer shelf life. From a paper of the German Museum of Additives we learn: “Borax is used as a weedkiller and as an insecticide against ants, fleas and cockroaches.” 
However, this is only a small selection of additives that can harm your health. This also includes the dye E 110: yellow orange. It provides for wine gum, salmon substitute or cheese for an intense color, but can also be cause of kidney tumors – as the result in animal experiments.
The substance can also be the cause of asthma and eczema. There is also tin-II-chloride (E 512). It serves as a color stabilizer. Consumer centers advise against consuming larger quantities.


Little research has been done on the interactions that individual additives have with each other. The same applies to the simultaneous consumption of additives and medicines. It is also unknown how many of the substances affect children. Sweets in dazzling colors are very appealing to the little ones in particular. The decisive factor is also what amounts the children consume. Especially with them, larger amounts can cause allergies and affect the immune system.
“There are, of course, substances that are known to be less well metabolized by the body, and that certain colorants can promote allergies.” There are certain emulsifiers that are suspected of affecting the intestinal membrane Years ago lost their approval, “explains Niemeyer. 

Nothing new

Candy for Halloween (Colourbox)

For children: the more colorful, the better

Additives have not existed for several years. “Additives have been with humanity from the very beginning of high culture, and even then people used a variety of substances and tried to stretch food or make it beautiful, so it’s not a phenomenon of the emerging food industry,” says Niemeyer.

What would the cake be without baking soda and a strawberry ice cream without strawberry flavor? Nothing without the additives! But the ultimate taste sensation and the attractive appearance of food can also have their price – at least when the food is consumed uncritically. For example, on the packaging of a large, colorful lollipop, it says, “Can affect activity and attention in children.” Maybe parents and children should better do without the seductive candy. 

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