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How to judge food ingredients you don’t even know?

A few days ago, I came across Carina Rossi’s contribution on Popsugar.com.au addressing the challenges you face as a consumer when you try to decipher the food labels. She puts it like this:

”If there are numbers or words I can't pronounce in the ingredient list, I tend to stay away — surely they're not OK, right?”

In the post, Australian nutritionist Kiah Witney-Cochrane of Transform Health explains why ingredients like stabilizers and emulsifiers are needed at all in various foods, and how commonly used food additives are subject to strict control. Additionally, she explains how many of these ingredients are often, in fact, extracted from natural raw materials.

When I read the post, I first thought of some of the good examples of stabilizers and emulsifiers that are derived directly from natural sources, such as E440 (Pectin), which is extracted from the peel of citrus fruits or apple pomace, and E410 (locust Bean Gum) that is extracted from the seeds of the carob tree, and similarly, E407 (carrageenan) is extracted from red seaweeds. Along the same lines, E322 (lechitin) is extracted from soybean oil, sunflower oil or egg yolk.

Some other stabilizers and emulsifiers are produced exclusively from natural raw materials but in more or less natural processes. Examples of this could be E471 (mono- and diglycerides) which is typically produced from vegetable oils, like palm oil, sunflower oil or rape seed oil in a chemical process. Or it could be E415 (xanthan gum) that is produced by fermentation of sugars isolated from natural sources. Surely, there are quite a few numbers and words in these examples that many consumers would find it difficult to pronounce – and essentially impossible to fully decipher.

The E numbers are used within the European Union – and E actually stands for “Europe” but similar numbering systems are also used elsewhere. In Europe, it is the European Food Safety Authority that is responsible for the approval and continuous safety assessments of all food additives. And in the US, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is charged with their analogous regulation. The E numbering system was first introduced in 1962 for food coloring and gradually extended to include also stabilizers and emulsifiers in 1974 so now the system has been in place for more than 50 years.

So, many would probably agree with Carina Rossi that E numbers - and maybe even the common names of many ingredients - do not sound terribly appealing, but in fact the whole system is in place to ensure intensive scientific and regulatory scrutiny to mitigate any health risks and developing safe limits for their use in foods and beverages.

About the author

Claus Hviid Christensen

In addition to serving as Editor of Emulsifiers for Good, Claus Hviid Christensen is the CEO of Nexus A/S, which is the R&D company for Palsgaard A/S. He graduated from the University of Copenhagen in 1992. During his research career, he has published more than 175 scientific papers, which have been cited more than 20,000 times. He was the founder and director of the Danish national research center of excellence on ”Sustainable Chemistry” established in 2005 when he was a full professor at the Danish Technical University. Later, he has worked as senior executive within engineering, renewable energy, infrastructure construction, and food innovation businesses. Claus Hviid Christensen has also served as non-executive board member and government adviser in several countries, e.g. as the Chairman of the Danish Council for Research Policy. He can be reached via chc@palsgaard.dk.