While researching this topic, I have not been able to find any link between E numbers and addiction. 6 food colourings have, however, been anecdotally linked to hyperactivity in children; these are:

  • sunset yellow (E110)
  • quinoline yellow (E104)
  • carmoisine (E122)
  • allura red (E129)
  • tartrazine (E102)
  • ponceau 4R (E124)

These claims have been investigated, and little or no evidence of the link has been found. But this isn’t really surprising, if we consider what E numbers actually are.

The ‘E’ actually stands for ‘Europe’ – E numbers are food additives which have been permitted for use in the European Union and Switzerland. Before being permitted, additives are tested for safety by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA).

Of course, this hasn’t stopped a frenzy of claims of harm from E numbers. Because they’re often listed in ingredient lists without the full name – only the E number – people tend to think of them as artificial or harmful, despite the fact that many E numbers are extracts from spices such as paprika (E160c) and turmeric (E100), or vitamins such as vitamin C (E300) and vitamin B2 (E101).

However, while E numbers aren’t addictive, there are many foods that are. In particular, sugar has been shown to be addictive. There is some evidence that we’re born with an innate craving for sweet foods, which in our evolutionary past would have been useful for maximising our calorific intake. When we eat sugary foods, our brains release a hormone called dopamine, which causes a pleasure sensation. It’s this dopamine release, and the following crash, that causes addiction. Other foods, such as those high in fat, have also been found to be addictive in the same way, while dairy products contain a substance called casein, which can act on the same receptors in the brain as some opioid drugs.

Food addiction and illnesses associated with it, like obesity and diabetes, are a growing health concern we face worldwide, and it’s important that we understand how food affects the body and the mind. Fortunately, as they are tested for safety before being permitted for use as food additives, E numbers are likely to be part of the solution, rather than part of the problem.

References and Further Reading:

Wikipedia page on E numbers:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/E_number

Are E numbers really bad for you?

http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/food/2010/08/are-e-numbers-really-bad-for-y.shtml

Food colourings and hyperactivity:

http://www.nhs.uk/conditions/food-additive-intolerance/Pages/Introduction.aspx

Why is sugar addictive?

http://www.bbc.co.uk/science/0/21835302

Cheese triggers the same part of the brain as hard drugs, study finds:

http://www.independent.co.uk/extras/indybest/food-drink/cheese-triggers-the-same-part-of-brain-as-hard-drugs-study-finds-a6707011.html