When a food additive has been officially checked and authorized to be added to food, in Europe it’s given an E number. The “E” before the number is used in the European Union (EU) and the system is intended to help consumers throughout Europe to check food labels even if they do not speak the language of the country the food comes from. This system is also used in other countries outside of Europe, including e.g., Russia, Australia, South Africa, Israel. It’s a myth that “E” stands for “edible”! In North America you can increasingly find also numbers on a food label to replace the name of a food additive – however, this is still rare.
Many health conscious people prefer food without food additives. However, it’s vital to know that if no additives are listed on the label, you can’t always be sure that there were no additives used in the manufacturing process. The legal requirement is that a food manufacturer only must list additives that technically change the end product. This means that in the manufacturing process, additives may be used at some point but don’t necessarily need to be listed if they aren’t recognizable in the finished product. An example is magnesium stearate in cocoa powder, which ensures that the cocoa is still free-flowing. In a finished cocoa drink, this additive no longer has any effect and so it’s often not listed on the label.