ENGLISCH/885: Questions to Mrs Gobbledygook (183) E-numbers (SB)


183 Additives and preservatives

Dear Mrs Gobbledygook

I read an article about foodism somewhere the other day. It was rather good. The difference between a gourmet and a foodie, it said, was that a gourmet was traditionally a rich male amateur to whom food was a passion. Foodism is an upwardly mobile activity of the 80s - food is the fashion for aspiring professional couples. Since then the twenty to forty age bracket got more food- conscious on the whole and turn from convenience food to wholefood avoiding "E"s and additives. I would agree with that, because there are E-numbers on german food labels, but I couldn't find the abbreviation "E" or the term "E-number" in my dictionary. So I'm not quite sure if I agree to the right thing. Please help...

Best regards

Thomas B. (Hannover, Germany)


Dear Mr B

Please don't worry, you are right. Unless in Britain we rather use "additives" or "preservatives" than the expression "E- number", the "E" stands for the same thing in whole Europe. But let me explain it a little more simple:

Food-additives or preservatives are either colours to food or drink, to make the existing natural colour or taste stronger produced into the food to stop it from going bad or to give it more structure or substance. One of the obvious reasons for using preservatives is, to prolong shelf-life. A shelf is a flat piece of wood, metal or glass that is attached to a wall or fixed inside a cupboard or fridge. You keep things on the shelf, jars with jam, flour, sugar, salt, packets of crisps, chocolate for instance or cheese, yoghurt, sausages on the shelf in the fridge. Shelf-life is the term we use to describe the length of time that a food or drink product can be kept in a shop, before it becomes too old to sell. Preservatives prolong the shelf-lifes of many foods.

We usually use the word "additives" when referring to artificial food-additives. These are chemicals that have been specially produced for this case. But there are also natural additives. For instance, sugar is a natural additive. And so too is salt. In these days additives are used in most manufactured foods and in many countries the additives have to be listed on a label of ingredients. This label should say exactly what is in the food or drink product. In Europe, additives are classified by their E- number. And that is why E-number means indeed exactly the same as the german term "E-Nummer".

An E-number is a chain of figures which start with an capital "E" and which appears on food and drink labels to identify additives and preservatives, that have been approved by the European Community as safe for use in particular food- or drink-products. The letter "E", in the E-number stands for "Europe". It's usually followed by three digits which do note exactly what the additive is. For example: Many soft drinks contain E 102. E 102 is a colouring called "tartrazin". A common additive in some meats and cheeses is the chemical compound "sodium nitrate" (NaNO3) or as it is classified in the E-number-system "E 250". But even Oxygen (O2) has an E-number: E 948. These remind us of another E-number "E 605", which stands for a strong poison or pesticide and has nothing to do with food-additives.

In fact, E-numbers seem to disguise the true ingredients and make the customer feel more insecure about the product.

Incidently since the early 1990s the term E-number has often been abbreviated in informal speech to just "E" which leads us to your question. So for example, if you read a label and see that it contains a lot of E-numbers, you could say:

"This is full of E's"

or just imagine the following conversation in a greengrocers shop, where Bob is trying to buy some icecream, but the shopkeeper is not very happy about his choice:

"Oh, no sir, you don't want this icecream"

"What's wrong with it"

"Look at all the E's"

"The what?"

"The E-numbers! Look, its got preservatives, flavouring, colouring. Oh, no sir. How about something a bid more natural?"

"I don't want something more natural. I want this

"But this other icecream is much nicer. See what it says on the label: "Free from artificial additives". That means it contains no artificial additives."

"I know what it means, but I don't want it."

"It's much better for you."

"Look, are you gonna sell me what I wanna buy?"

"Well if you insist and if you are really sure, this is what you want?"

"Yes, thank you!"

Hope these explanations are to your taste


Miranda Gobbledygook

2 February 2010