Food Additive Numbers – What do they mean?

Should we avoid all food additive numbers?

There is plenty of media drawing attention to the effects that sugar and refined grains are having on our waistline and the growing obesity epidemic but, what about those random food additive numbers that keep popping up on nutritional labels?

Are any of them safe and which ones do we definitely need to avoid?

In an ideal world, we’d all be eating fresh foods free from processing and packaging – fresh fruits and vegetables, fresh meats and seafood, nuts and seeds, eggs, and drinking not much other than water.

However, we don’t always have the time, motivation, or know-how to prepare all of our food from scratch. Sometimes it’s just nice to have a treat or a convenience food at our fingertips for when life takes over and your schedule goes running out the door.

The World Health Organisation and the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation do monitor food additive but jury is still out among health practitioners regarding the effects of these food additives on our health.

So why are they even in our food if they don’t have to be and we still aren’t 100% sure they aren’t harmful? Big food manufacturers include them in products as an easy way of improving the colour, texture, or flavour of processed food. The problem is, some of the foods they are added to might not seem processed to the average person. Take things like tinned tomatoes, tinned coconut cream, dried coconut, and dried fruit are all staples of a real food diet, and yet many brands of these products contain added numbers.

So let’s break the numbers into groups. A full list of what each food additive number means can be found here for all Colours, Preservatives and Thickeners.


Basically all colours are usually indicated by numbers in the 100’s. 

Studies show that artificial colorings which are found in many food items such as soft drink, fruit juices, and salad dressings, may contribute to behavioral problems in children and lead to a significant reduction in IQ. Animal studies have linked some food colorings to cancer. Some ones to look out for:

  • Blue #1, #2 (E133) – May cause chromosomal damage. Found in lollies, cereal, soft drinks, sports drinks and pet foods.
  • Red #3, #40 (E124) – Has been proven to cause thyroid cancer and chromosomal damage in laboratory animals, may also interfere with brain-nerve transmission. Found in maraschino cherries, ice cream, lollies, bakery products and more!
  • Yellow #6 (E110) & Yellow Tartrazine (E102) – Increases the number of kidney and adrenal gland tumors in laboratory animals, may cause chromosomal damage. Found in American Cheese, Macaroni and cheese, soft drinks, lollies and more!



This group of food additive is used to extend the shelf life of products. They can be helpful in certain situations where food needs to be stored for longer periods of time. However, some preservatives – such as in dried fruit, dried coconut products and wine – are especially problematic for people susceptible to allergic reactions or even asthma attacks. The compound responsible for this is sulfites and benzoates found in numbers between 200 and 220.

Ever wonder why some wines give you a bigger hangover? You can thank the preservative Sodium Sulphite (E221) for that one!

In a recent study the World Health Organisation cited preservatives used in processed meats as “probably carcinogenic”, because of the way these preservatives act in our bodies once consumed. The study also highlighted potential problems with over consumption of red meat, but because of the health benefits of eating meat – B vitamins, zinc absorption and adrenal support – they suggested people cut down on these foods rather than cutting them out altogether.

Almost all soft drinks contain carcinogenic additives in the form of sodium benzoate, potassium benzoate (212) and ascorbic acid (300). When combined, these additives can cause a known carcinogen – benzene – to form. Then you couple this with the colours and sugars found in these products it really is a no brainer to avoid soft drinks at all costs. If you really can’t go without, then take sparkling mineral water.  Add in some citrus, maybe even some berries, or some mint and cucumber for that cooling effect.

Preservatives to avoid…

  • BHA And BHT (E320) – Affects the neurological system of the brain, alters behavior and has a potential to cause cancer. Found in potato chips, chewing gum, cereal, enriched rice, lard, shortening, lollies, jelly.
  • Potassium Bromate – An additive used to increase volume in some white flour, bread, and rolls. Causes cancer in animals. Even small amounts in bread can create problems for humans.
  • Sodium nitrate (or sodium nitrite) is used as a preservative, coloring, and flavoring in bacon, ham, hot dogs, lunch meats, corned beef, smoked fish and other processed meats. This ingredient, is actually highly carcinogenic once it enters the human digestive system. Why does the industry still use it? Simple! This chemical just happens to turn meats bright red.  It makes old, dead meats appear fresh and vibrant. Mmmmmm tasty!


Thickeners are used by food manufacturers to get a desired consistency or texture and also to stop foods from separating. Ever wondered why some coconut cream pours out of the can perfectly. While others comes out as a solid and liquid? The answer is a thickening agent.

Food thickeners frequently are based on either starches, vegetable gums, and pectin, or proteins. This category includes starches as arrowroot, cornstarch, potato starch, tapioca and many others. Vegetable gums used as food thickeners include guar gum, locust bean gum, and xanthan gum. Proteins used as food thickeners include collagen, egg whites, and gelatin.

Some are beneficial such as collagen and gelatin – if from a quality source – some appear to be harmless though not beneficial, and some like vegetable gums can be problematic for people with digestive issues; in particular gums, and carrageen.

While thickeners appear to not be as dangerous as colours and thickeners when it comes to food additives, there is still not enough evidence to say that they are safe for consumption.

The general rule…

The big take home message from this one is try and eat food that is as close to nature as possible. This is what we mean by “whole foods”. And also means avoiding packets and cans with confusing food additive numbers as much as possible!

So the next time you head into the supermarket stick to the outside perimeter of the store. Generally, everything on the outside is fresh/natural and everything down the aisles has been processed in some way, shape or form.

Be sure to check out our other blogs for other nutrition tips!