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E-Numbers vs. Clean Label – The Food Battle of the 21st Century

Natural CL

Well my dear WGS readers; this is what I can call a real controversy and something that started just few years ago in the UK, nowadays can be seen as a up-growing trend in all Europe and furthermore outside the continent. But before we enter into the complex world of clean label, let’s get out of the way what E-number in reality means.


The following concept has been extracted from Wikipedia.


“E-numbers are codes for chemicals which can be used as food additives for use within the European Union and Switzerland (the "E" stands for "Europe"). They are commonly found on food labels throughout the European Union. Safety assessment and approval are the responsibility of the European Food Safety Authority.


Having a single unified list for food additives was first agreed upon in 1962 with colors. In 1964, the directives for preservatives were added, 1970 for antioxidants and 1974 for the emulsifiers, stabilizers, thickeners and gelling agents”


Now back to our Clean Label subject.




It is not an exaggeration at all when I say that the Clean Label battle has snowballed in the last years, when it all started as a push by the UK retailers in their means to get rid of products originating from artificial colors. All this in the sunrise of the Southampton study, and it has escalated into a global clean-up operation in all the food labels across Europe and even outside the continent.


What can be considered a trend was initially driven by retailers in the UK as a response to the general consumer concerns over E-numbers in all foods and consumables. Outside the UK, the main countries where the clean-label movement has really gained momentum are Germany, Sweden, The Netherlands, Denmark, and Finland. As a matter of a fact there are indications that the fellow Scandinavians have brought the enforcement of this rule even further than the British. The Scandinavian retailers go as far as stipulating which ingredients they want to replace.


History says that even before the Southampton study, lots of pressure was built in order to clean up labels in some European countries like Germany and France where clean label has predominated as far as 2005.


But, nevertheless what has not changed since the trend went viral is the lack of information and clear public definitions as to what constitutes a clean label. In a nutshell we can say that the term clean label has a wide variety of different meanings. All these ranging from E-number Free, all the way to Totally Natural.


And although no universal definition currently exists, the terminology of Clean Label is not yet defined in Food Legislations. That is the reason why it is so difficult to understand. But one thing is for sure; more and more people are demanding no additives or preservatives in their foods. After all, food is not supposed to last that long right? At least the good one.


Now, there is another inner controversy in the whole CL (Clean Label) subject. And that is that more than 300 substances until date, are considered to be additives, and yet they are authorized by the European Union.

These products are clearly bearing the code consisting of the letter “E” immediately followed by an ID number. These additives are defined as substances and they are not normally consumed as foods by themselves.


So… where does this definition leave all the ingredients that are chemical sounding but technically CL. Ingredient like Sodium Chloride? Or in the other hand ingredients that are classified as additives which at the same time are acceptable to many consumers, like Ascorbic Acid?


But as the previous definition explains; Sodium Chloride can apply as an additive which has been widely used in the kitchen for a long time. At the same time, salt is considered an ingredient and not an additive.


But it gets more complex when it comes to defining Ascorbic Acid, which is not really a food component. Did you recall your mother using Ascorbic Acid when cooking a family meal? I don’t think so! Nevertheless Ascorbic Acid is considered a food additive by the European Union.


Really tricky, but how about the case of Xanthan Gum? This shows furthermore how confusing this all is. For example, Xanthan Gum is one of the additives that food manufacturers and retailers are looking to eliminate, whilst at the same time many consumers in the UK are looking to buy Xanthan Gum to be able to bake Gluten-Free bread. The situation is clearer when it comes to flavorings though. Since a flavor in order to be clean label, it has to be natural, and there are as a matter of fact legislations in place that clearly stipulates when the term Natural can and must be used to describe a flavor in particular.


The European Union launched flavor legislations, enforced in January 2011, which did provide several new conditions for the use of flavorings or food ingredients with flavoring properties, and source materials. This clearly defined the conditions for which they can be classified as natural and without a doubt helped to refine the term CL and what it means in terms of flavors. That’s good news.


Some skeptical individuals and scholars call CL a marketing tool just like Bio and other ones and since this is pretty much open to interpretation, maybe it doesn’t really matter.


What really matters is that at the end of the day we all can agree in one thing. We need desperately clean, honest, nurturing and chemical free foods. It is no news for the entire food community that since the 1930’s and increased in the 1950’s with the so called economy booms in the United Sates that the cases of cancer and food allergies have grown dramatically and even more in the latest decades.


It is mandatory for food manufacturers, retailers, and R&D teams and ultimately the consumer, to unify the thinking of what good food indeed is and we need to take serious steps towards making it happen. Not later, but the sooner the better.


I can proudly share here that my family and I we have reached the target of a 100% natural and honest food consumption in our home; and this has nothing to do with the fact that I am a chef. It has to do with personal choices and food philosophies.


And please! We cannot blame all the time the entire food manufacturing community for the trouble food has become today, as it is our private and personal responsibility to choose in the supermarkets the food we buy and we eat. Let’s not imitate the ridiculous cases of certain obese people demanding financial retribution from McDonald’s. They were the ones shoveling all those hamburgers and fries down their throat. No one put a gun to their heads!


The next time you are in the supermarket; do you and your family a favor would you?


Don’t choose the cheapest products, instead read the labels, inform yourself better and choose the better and healthier food products even if the price is higher. After all what are you really saving, when all that money you save on food and on yourself, you may end up giving it to the doctor. Think about it!


See you on my next article and I look forward to your comments and critics.


Gianfranco Chiarini

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