If you live in or travel to the United Kingdom, Bulgaria, or another country in the European Union (EU), you will see that food label ingredient lists contain numbers beginning with the capital letter ‘E’. You can also find them in the U.S. on labels of international foods. These are known as ‘E-numbers.’
In the 1980s, the EU devised a numbering system to standardize food additive labeling. Each food additive, or a group of similar additives, is assigned its own number and is classified in a certain number grouping based on its function.
Function E and Number Range
Colorings >>> E100-E181
Preservatives >>> E200-E285 & E1105
Antioxidants >>> E300-E340
Acidity Regulators >>> Various numbers
Thickeners/Emulsifiers >>> E322, E400-499 and E1400-E1451
Anti-caking Agents >>> E550-E572
Flavor Enhancers >>> E600-E650
Glazing Agents >>> E900-E910
Sweeteners >>> E420, E421, E950-970
What is a Food Additive?
Food additives are present in very small amounts in manufactured foods and ingredients. European legislation explains that a food additive is “any substance not normally consumed as a food in itself and not normally used as a characteristic ingredient of food.” Food additives are used for technological purposes, such as to form gels or to sweeten foods. Examples of food additives include the preservative BHT, the thickener carrageenan, and the emulsifier lecithin, and the sweetener aspartame.
The E-numbering system fosters unity within the EU by facilitating the free movement of goods throughout the member countries. As there are many languages used throughout the EU, E numbers make listing food additives simple. It also allows manufacturers a shortcut method rather than listing long chemical names. The E-numbering system is useful not only as a regulatory tool, but also to consumers. Those with known allergies can easily screen products that may cause allergic reactions.
E-numbers are not used to disguise questionable or haram ingredients. The food additives that E-numbers represent are used in a safe and conscientious manner by food companies. All food ingredients should be consumed at safe levels, though. It is not wise to eat a pound of sugar in sitting because you would likely get a stomachache, headache, and have trouble sleeping. Over time, a daily diet consisting of one pound of sugar will most likely result in obesity or worse. Similarly, food additives are designed for specific uses, and are typically included at very minute, safe amounts.
For a complete list of E-numbers and the corresponding food additives visit here.
What should U.S. Muslim Consumers know?
In Islam, the word halal is used to designate what is permissible. As a result, pork, or pork derived ingredients, such as gelatin, cannot be consumed, Nor can animal or animal by-products from those animals which have not been slaughtered in the proper way. Food labels on products bought in the US will include actual ingredient names, so it is not necessary for US consumers to look for E numbers. Some international foods that are sold in the US, however, will also include an EU approved ingredient list with E-numbers. Some E numbers that are questionable for Muslims are E471 (mono-and diglycerides), E491 (sorbitan monostearate), and E570 (fatty acids). The E470’s consist mostly of fatty acid derivatives and fatty acids which are questionable as they may be derived from vegetable or animal sources.
From the Holy Quran:
“O you who believe! forbid not the good things which Allah has made ‘lawful’ for you, and transgress not. Lo! Allah loves not transgressors. Eat of that which Allah has bestowed on you as food ‘lawful’ and good, and keep your duty to Allah in whom you are believers.” (5:87-88)
As with any food or food additive, when dealing with E-numbers, Muslims need to pay attention to food labels and look for questionable ingredients on the ingredient list. In order to safeguard ourselves from eating what is doubtful or haram, be conscientious of the food you may eat, so that Your actions and attitudes become a way to please God. The IFANCA halal logo takes out the doubt. Consumers can rely on the safety and quality of IFANCA halal products.
Written by: Suzanne Audi & Mariam Majeed for Halal Consumer magazine (Summer 2009 edition) from IFANCA
Updated the link for E-Numbers list from Food Standards Agency.