Vegan labelling in France: e-numbers

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There’s a hint of the Frankenstein about the pejorative term E-numbers, but in reality these are simply codes for substances which are permitted to be used as food additives in the EU. The ‘E’ stands for Europe and the standards are approved by the European Food Safety Agency. However, the same labelling system has been adopted in many other parts of the world, including Australia, with the exception of North America which has its own draconian Food & Drugs Agency (FDA). E-numbers can be useful indicators of the vegan provenance of a product, but in France there is no obligation to print the numbers, so in many instances, rather than e-numbers, the labelling will contain the details described in (French) words, which is less helpful.

There are 319 e-numbers in total substances ranging from oxygen (E948 – yes, really!) to vitamin C (E300). That’s rather too many to learn, so I decided the easiest plan would be to research which e-numbers referred to substances which were not suitable for vegan diets. Four absolute no-no’s are E120 cochineal (crushed beetles), E542 edible bone phosphate, E901 beeswax and E904 shellac. After this, there’s a grey area of substances that can be of animal origin although these days are more often of synthetic origin. I class these as doubtful.

There are 319 e-numbers in total substances ranging from oxygen (E948 – yes, really!) to vitamin C (E300).

The vegan avoidance list

Definite no-go

  • E120 cochineal or carmine
  • E542 edible bone phosphate
  • E901 beeswax
  • E904 shellac
  • E913 lanolin
  • E966 lactitol
  • E1105 lysozyme
  • E441 gelatine

Doubtful

  • E910, 920 & 921 l-cysteine
  • E 631 disodium inosinate
  • E 635 a flavour enhancer
  • E101 riboflavin
  • E161g canthaxanthin
  • E270 lactic acid (plus E325,326,327)
  • E640 glycines
  • E469 an emulsifier

This list only covers e-numbers that are potentially unsuitable for vegans as they are of animal origin. What about those e-numbers that are said to be bad for health? By this, I mean genuinely bad for health, rather than the tabloid scare-mongering ‘bad’. On the websites usually accepted to be reliable sources – the BBC and the NHS – the general consensus seems to be that most e-numbers are in fact beneficial to health (Gates, BBC, 2010). Two e-numbers that are possibly detrimental are E621 mono-sodium glutamate and E220 sulphur dioxide (said to accelerate asthma), plus the food colourings associated with hyperactivity in children known as the ‘Southampton Six’: E129, 124, 102, 110, 104 and 122). On other more health-conscious websites and blogs other suggestions to avoid are E211 sodium benzoate, said to cause allergies, E951 aspartame, E151 black PN (already banned in most EU countries) and E213 calcium benzoate.

Armed with this knowledge, a quick analysis of some ready-prepared French products revealed that out of six packets, only one listed any e-numbers. But this did not mean that they contained no food additives. The use of e-numbers is not compulsory, so as an alternative manufacturers can list the actual names of the ingredients or the chemical constituents, and many French manufacturers seem to prefer this. So, here are translations of the e-numbers which some vegetarians and vegans may wish to avoid:

E-numbers in French

  • E101 riboflavine ou lactoflavine
  • E102 tartrazine
  • E104 jaune de quinoléine
  • E110 jaune orange S
  • E120 acide carmique
  • E122 azorubine
  • E124 ponceau 4R
  • E129 rouge allura AC
  • E151 noir brilliant BN
  • E161g canthaxanthine
  • E211 benzoate de sodium
  • E213 benzoate de calcium
  • E270 lactic acid
  • E325 lactate de sodium
  • E326 lactate de potassium
  • E327 lactate de calcium
  • E441 gélatine
  • E469 carbonméthylcellulose hydroysée
  • E542 phosphate d’os comestible
  • E621 glutamate monosodique
  • E 631 inosinate disodique
  • E 635 5-ribonucléotide disodique
  • E640 glycine
  • E901 cire d’abeille
  • E904 gomme-lacque
  • E910, 920 & 921 l-cysteine
  • E913 lanoline
  • E951 aspartame
  • E966 lactitol
  • E1105 lysozyme

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