Additives or E numbers

colours in bowl

Additives must be assessed for safety before they can be used in food. We also ensure that the science on additives is strictly reviewed, the law strictly enforced, and action is taken where problems are found. We investigate any information that casts reasonable doubt on the safety of an additive.

European Union (EU) legislation requires most additives used in foods to be labelled clearly in the list of ingredients, with their function, followed by either their name or E number. An E number means that it has passed safety tests and has been approved for use here and in the rest of the EU.

What are the different types of additives?

Food additives are grouped by what they do. The additives that you are most likely to come across on food labels are:

  • antioxidants (stop food becoming rancid or changing colour by reducing the chance of fats combining with oxygen)
  • colours
  • emulsifiers, stabilisers, gelling agents and thickeners (help to mix or thicken ingredients)
  • flavour enhancers (used to bring out the flavour of foods)
  • preservatives (used to keep food safer for longer)
  • sweeteners (intense sweeteners are many times sweeter than sugar whereas bulk sweeteners have a similar sweetness to sugar)

How can I find out more?

If you would like any more information, you can email: foodadditives@foodstandards.gsi.gov.uk or telephone 020 7276 8570.

More in this section

  • Current EU approved additives and their E Numbers

    Most additives are only permitted to be used in certain foods and are subject to specific quantitative limits, so it is important to note this list should be used in conjunction with the appropriate European Union legislation.

  • EFSA assessment of the safety of authorised colours

    The European Commission has asked EFSA to systematically re-evaluate all authorised food additives in the European Union and has started by looking at all colours. EFSA has been asked to do this work in the interest of consumer protection to take account of new research since the original assessments were carried out.

  • Food colours and hyperactivity

    Research funded by the FSA has suggested that consumption of mixes of certain artificial food colours and the preservative sodium benzoate could be linked to increased hyperactivity in some children.

  • Aspartame

    Aspartame is an intense sweetener, approximately 200 times sweeter than sugar, which has been used in soft drinks and other low-calorie or sugar-free foods throughout the world for more than 25 years. It is also referred to as E951.

  • Steviol glycosides

    Steviol glycosides are high intensity sweeteners, 250-300 times sweeter than sucrose. They are isolated and purified from the leaves of the stevia plant (Stevia rebaudiana Bertoni), where it is present at levels up to 13%.

  • Additives: Guidance for businesses

    Additives guidance

  • High caffeine energy drinks and other foods containing caffeine

    Energy drinks are generally drinks with high caffeine levels that are claimed by the manufacturers to give the consumer more 'energy' than a typical soft drink.