Modern Industrial Chemicals (part 1) - E Numbers: The Dewey Decimal System of Food Additives

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Over the past century, the food industry has developed or repurposed a number of chemicals to address the issues of scaling created when producing food in large quantities. Preventing illness, maintaining freshness, controlling costs, and meeting changing consumer demands have all presented challenges. Producing larger quantities of food increases the time between harvest and consumption, increasing the chances of spoilage and the amount of time foodborne pathogens have to develop. And aggregating ingredients from a larger number of producers increases the impact that a single contaminated item can have.

Hard on the heels of World War II, when advances in food science had been applied to address these problems in the military’s meal rations (“an army travels on its stomach”), the food industry found a new market in the American consumer. Convenience foods and prepared meals burst onto the scene at the same time that freezers went into mass production and television sets became the “must have” item for the American family. Instant food and instant entertainment have been married ever since.

The same family of chemicals that enabled the creation of the TV dinner (mmm, Kraft Macaroni & Cheese) also allowed for a new set of dishes to be created by haute cuisine chefs, sometimes called molecular gastronomy or modernist cuisine (we’ll use the latter term). These chefs use industrial chemicals to create entirely different ways of conveying flavors and exciting the senses. When done well, the dishes are not about additives at all, but about the perceptions and emotions that all good meals strive to evoke. No one is suggesting that vegetables and whole foods should be replaced with white powders.

The demand for innovative foods at the high end of the culinary world should not be surprising. Luxury restaurants now have to compete with the enthusiastic hobbyist chef, who has been able to better approximate traditional restaurant fare as the quality of consumer gear and produce has improved. The same technological advances that have enabled the production of convenience foods have also enabled the agro-industrial food complex to deliver an ever-widening—sometimes maddeningly so—variety of food, and also to make those foods available for a longer window of time each year.

Turning to food additives for new dishes is a logical progression in the process of creating something new. Sometimes, the results are amazing; other times, they fall flat. Compare the culinary iconoclasts to the fashions that show up on the Paris runways: while it might not be “everyday” wear or cuisine, the better concepts and ideas that start out at the high end eventually make their way into the clothing shops and onto the general restaurant scene.

Many of the techniques that rely on food additives originated in Europe. Chef Ferran Adrià’s restaurant elBulli, in Spain, is considered by many to be the originator of much of modern haute cuisine. Chef Heston Blumenthal’s restaurant The Fat Duck, in the UK, has also established an international reputation for pushing the boundaries of food.


By some accounts, one had a better chance of getting into Harvard than getting a reservation at elBulli.

Should you have the opportunity and inclination to dine at them, both Alinea (Chef Grant Achatz’s restaurant in Chicago) and wd-50 (Chef Wylie Dufresne’s restaurant in New York City) are highly regarded and happen to use food additives in creating some of their dining experiences.

Fortunately, you do not need to eat at these places to understand what this style of cooking offers. With willingness and a certain amount of determination, you can duplicate, or at least roughly approximate, a number of the techniques in use at these restaurants in your own home.

Be forewarned: while the techniques are generally not difficult, the time and costs involved and the resulting product might not leave you clamoring to use these methods in your daily routine; in fact, you might even think they should be classified as a form of culinary terrorism. Still, even if the use of some of these chemicals remains limited to the “fun party trick” category because of their novelty, isn’t a part of geeking out understanding how things work? Before jumping into the techniques, however, let’s take a slight detour to examine a chemical taxonomy and the chemistry of colloids to help explain the science behind the techniques.

1. E Numbers: The Dewey Decimal System of Food Additives

It’s easy enough to write eggplant on the grocery list, but how does one go about writing up a grocery list for food additives? The Codex Alimentarius Commission—established by the United Nations and the World Health Organization—has created a taxonomy of food additives called “E numbers.” Like the Dewey Decimal classification system, it establishes a hierarchical tree: a unique E number is assigned for each chemical compound, grouped by functional categories, with the numbering of chemicals determined by each chemical’s primary usage.

E100–E199: Coloring agents

(i.e., food coloring, like those found in the grocery store)

E120: Cochineal or carminic acid (“red 4,” in common use)
E200–E299: Preservatives

E251: Sodium nitrate (used in curing items like sausages)

E290: Carbon dioxide
E300–E399: Antioxidants, acidity regulators

E300: Ascorbic acid (vitamin C)

E322: Lecithin (emulsifier, typically from soy)

E330: Citric acid (in lemons, limes, etc.)

E327: Calcium lactate
E400–E499: Thickeners, emulsifiers, and stabilizers

E401: Sodium alginate

E406: Agar

E441: Gelatin

E461: Methylcellulose
E500–E599: Acidity regulators, anti-caking agents

E500: Sodium bicarbonate (baking soda)

E509: Calcium chloride

E524: Sodium hydroxide (lye)
E600–E699: Flavor enhancers E621: Monosodium glutamate (MSG)
E700–E799: Antibiotics
E900–E999: Miscellaneous

E941: Nitrogen (used in food storage)

E953: Isomalt (also known as Isomaltitol)
E1000–E1999: Additional chemicals E1510: Ethanol (alcohol)
An abbreviated table of E numbers including common food additives.

Not everything has an E number; for example, neither common salt (sodium chloride) nor transglutaminase is currently included. Which additive to use for a particular effect, such as gelling, depends upon the properties of the food with which you’re working and your goals. Most food additives used in modernist cuisine come from the E400–E499 range, which consists of the following:

Thickeners (e.g., cornstarch, methylcellulose, agar, carrageenan)

Provide structure to items such as gels (Jell-O), traditional French dishes (aspics and terrines), and confections (gummy candies). Food preparers also use them to prevent both water and sugar crystallization in foods such as ice creams, because thickeners inhibit the development of molecular lattices.

Emulsifiers (e.g., lecithin and glycerin)

Prevent two liquids from separating, as with oil and water in mayonnaise. The food industry uses lecithin in chocolate for similar reasons, to prevent the cocoa solids and fats from separating and to increase the viscosity of the melted chocolate during manufacturing.

Stabilizers (e.g., guar and xanthan gums)

Lend a smooth “mouth-feel” to a liquid and can also act as emulsifiers by preventing aggregates from separating. Think of how oregano stays suspended in a commercial salad dressing, instead of precipitating out and settling to the bottom.

You will also see compounds from the E300–E399 and E500–E599 ranges used, but usually as secondary additives that help the E400–E499 compounds function. A number of the E400–E499 additives require either certain pH ranges or secondary compounds to react with, such as calcium when working with sodium alginate.

Some additives work in a broad range of pHs and temperatures but have other properties that may prohibit their use, depending upon the recipe. For example, while agar is a strong gelling agent, in some gels it also exhibits syneresis (when a gel expels a portion of its liquid—think of the liquid whey that separates out in some yogurts). Carrageenan does not undergo syneresis but cannot handle an environment as acidic as agar can. For example, if you attempt to use carrageenan to gel lime juice, which has a pH between 2.0 and 2.35, you will also need to add an acidity regulator to raise the pH.

Commercial food preparers have to balance additional variables in their recipes. In the lime gel example, if the pH is raised too much, the food becomes hospitable to bacterial activity, depending on other parameters in the food (e.g., water availability). Balancing all of this can require multiple chemicals, which is why prepared foods can have quite a number of chemicals on their ingredient labels!
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