It can take a good deal of time and effort to be a vegan. A lot of this time and effort is well-rewarded, such as that spent creating tasty and healthy meals, perhaps following the latest exciting vegan recipes. But few people who took their first steps into veganism realised they would have to become experts in nutrition simply to avoid eating anything that has been derived from animals.
A quick scan through the Is It Vegan? section of the Vegan Friendly site shows that many foodstuffs that might appear to be vegan friendly on the surface, might well have some kind of animal product lurking within it. Checking ingredients for surreptitious (and often seemingly unnecessary) additions of milk or eggs is one thing, but when you’re faced with a load of obscure E numbers, things become a little more complicated.
Of course, there is an argument to suggest that if you pick up a food product in the supermarket and it contains a long list of E numbers, you should put it straight back and head to the produce aisle instead. But, assuming you fancy something quick and convenient and you also want to make sure it is vegan friendly, well, it’s certainly worth knowing your riboflavin from your lysozyme.
EU Approved Additives & E Numbers
Fear not, because we’re taken the time to assess the vegan credentials of all the E numbers on the EU Approved additives & E numbers list. We’ve split them into groups of E numbers that vegans should always avoid and those they should be wary of and that may need further investigation. It is worth bearing in mind that many E numbers can be produced either synthetically or from animal sources, and it rarely mentions which production methods have been used on food labels.
Note that legislation and labelling has a habit of changing, so always double check with the manufacturer in question to be on the safe side if you are in any doubt. Note also that we are using the EU standards for E numbers that are permitted in food within the EU (at the time of writing), unless stated otherwise.
If you travel outside of the EU, there are likely to be different standards. For instance, in the United States, the US Food & Drug Administration has some differences on their list of approved additives compared to that of the EU. Also, bear in mind that foods may list amongst their ingredients the E number of additives, but alternatively they could use the scientific name or a commonly accepted variant.
E Numbers Vegans Should Always Avoid
|120||Cochineal; Carminic acid; Carmine||Colour||Carmine, or whatever other name is chosen (including “natural red 4” or “carmine lake”) is a red pigment obtained from cochineal insects.|
|441||Gelatine||Emulsifier||Obtained from the collagen of animal bones or skin, mainly pigs and cattle.|
|542||Bone phosphate||Anti-caking agent||Created by crushing the bones of animals – not approved in the EU.|
|901||Beeswax||Glazing agent||Unsurprisingly, beeswax comes from bees (see our Is Honey Vegan? article).|
|904||Shellac||Glazing agent||A resin that is secreted by a species of lac insects in Asia.|
|913||Lanolin||Glazing agent||Lanolin is grease derived from the wool of sheep – not approved in the EU.|
|966||Lactitol||Sweetener||This sugar alcohol is generally derived from milk.|
|1105||Lysosyme||Preservative||Generally obtained from chicken eggs.|
There is a chance that some of the above could have been produced synthetically, but we’re playing it safe with them to say it is best to always avoid them.
E Numbers Vegans Should Sometimes Avoid
|E101||Riboflavin||Colour||Riboflavin is another name for vitamin B2 and can be obtained from animal, plant or fungal sources.|
|E104||Quinoline yellow||Colour||Might contain traces of gelatine.|
|E252||Potassium nitrate||Preservative||Also known as saltpetre, this versatile chemical is used in fertilisers, fireworks and for the removal of tree stumps. It is sometimes produced from animal manure, but one might think it wise to avoid even that which has been synthetically produced!|
|E270||Lactic acid||Acidity regulator||Can be obtained from animal or plant sources or produced synthetically.|
|E304||Fatty acid esters of ascorbic acid||Antioxidant||Can be obtained from animal or plant sources.|
|E322||Lecithin||Emulsifier||Can be obtained from animal or plant sources, usually obtained from soya or sunflowers.|
|E325||Sodium lactate||Acidity regulator||Produced through fermentation of starch, molasses or sometime whey (from milk).|
|E326||Potassium lactate||Acidity regulator||As E325 above.|
|E327||Calcium lactate||Acidity regulator||As E325 above.|
|E422||Glycerol||Emulsifier||A simple organic compound that is viscous and sweet-tasting, glycerol can be obtained from plant (often soybeans or palm) or animal sources (rendered animal fat).|
|E430 to E436||Polyoxyethylene compounds||Stabiliser or emulsifier||These polymers of ethylene glycol are usually obtained from plant sources, but sometimes from animal sources.|
|E442||Ammonium phosphatides||Emulsifier||This ammonium salt is usually made from rapeseed oil, but it can be made from glycerol (see above).|
|E445||Glycerol esters of wood rosins||Emulsifier||Produced from glycerol, which may or may not be vegan friendly depending how it in turn was produced.|
|E470(a & b)||Sodium, potassium, calcium and magnesium salts of fatty acids||Anti-caking agent||Usually derived from plant sources, but occasional derived from animal sources.|
|E471||Mono- and diglycerides of fatty acids||Emulsifier||Usually derived from plant sources, but occasional derived from animal sources.|
|E472(a to f)||Acid esters of Mono- and diglycerides of fatty acids||Emulsifier||Usually derived from plant sources, but occasional derived from animal sources.|
|E473||Sucrose esters of fatty acids||Emulsifier||Surfactants (surface-active agents) that lower the surface tension between two liquids. Can be produced synthetically or from plant or animal fatty acids.|
|E474||Sucroglycerides||Emulsifier||Produced through reactions between sucrose and an edible fat, which may be of plant or animal origin.|
|E475||Polyglycerol esters of fatty acids||Emulsifier||Usually derived from plant sources, but occasional derived from animal sources.|
|E476||Polyglycerol polyricinoleate||Emulsifier||Usually derived from plant sources, but occasional derived from animal sources.|
|E477||Propane-1,2-diol esters of fatty acids||Emulsifier||Produced by reacting soy oil with fats that might be derived from plants or animals.|
|E479(b)||Thermally oxidised soya bean oil interacted with mono- and diglycerides of fatty acids||Emulsifier||Produced by reacting soy oil with fats that might be derived from plants or animals.|
|E481||Sodium stearoyl-2-lactylate||Emulsifier||Produced with the use of lactic acid (see above) that may have been produced from plant or animal sources.|
|E482||Calcium stearoyl-2-lactylate||Emulsifier||Produced with the use of lactic acid (see above) that may have been produced from plant or animal sources.|
|E483||Stearyl tartrate||Emulsifier||Produced by combining tartaric acid and stearyl acid, the latter of which could be derived from plants or animals.|
|E491 to E495||Sorbitan variants||Emulsifier||Fatty acids that could be produced from plants or animals.|
|E570||Fatty acids||Anti-caking agent||Usually derived from plant sources, but occasional derived from animal sources.|
|E585||Ferrous lactate||Colour||Produced by combining iron with lactic acid, which may have been produced using animal derivatives.|
|E631||Disodium inosinate||Flavouring||Sodium salt of inosinate, an acid that occurs naturally in animals. Often produced using meat or fish.|
|E635||Disodium 5′-ribonucleotides||Flavouring||Sodium salts of inosinates and guanylic, which are often produced using meat or fish.|
|E640||Glycine and its sodium salt||Flavouring||Glycine is an amino acid that is usually obtained from gelatine.|
|E920||L-Cysteine||Improving agent||An amino acid that can be made from duck feathers and animal or human hair, but nowadays, often produced synthetically.|
If in Doubt, Contact the Manufacturer
Although they can be seen as a little obscure, or even as a way for manufacturers to hide potentially undesirable ingredients, E numbers are actually pretty darn useful as a way to ensure that people only put approved additives into food. The assessment and approval of E numbers is taken care of by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), who also assess potential hazards and threats to food safety in general.
For vegans, they can be particularly confusing because so many can be made in both vegan and non-vegan ways. Perhaps the healthiest option is to try and avoid them entirely but, in the modern world, that’s increasingly difficult. Many E numbers are undoubtedly vegan friendly though and now you know the ones to avoid and the ones to check, you have a good foundation. As said though, and as we so often say, if in doubt, contacting the manufacturer is the surest way to make sure you are avoiding any animal-based additives.