Colour Codes and Additives - Decoded

Colour Codes and Additives - Decoded
Colour Codes and Additives... Decoding most things we eat can be tricky, calories, kilojoules, preservatives, colours, and additives; it all gets a bit much by the time we are in a grocery aisle or a supplement store we feel somewhat like Nicholas Cage in National Treasure trying to work out what is better than the other based on the label alone. That's all before we look at what's in it apart from that, not to mention the cost of the goods on the hip pocket as well as potentially your health.

Reading the Colour Codes and Additives

The International Numbering System for Food Additives is based on the European naming system for known food additives. Also known as INS for short. Defined as an internationally recognized index on the international food standards by the World Health Organisation, Food, and Agriculture Organisation, and also of the United Nations. INS remains what is deemed an ‘open list’ meaning it is subject to additions, alterations, and removal of items on a constant ongoing basis.

You will have noticed on some packaged food labels they contain numbers like E130, E122, A225 etc., and wondered what the heck they meant and why they are in this product?!

Types of Food Additives

There are many types of food additives used so deciphering them in groupings makes the process a little easier:

Numbers 100 -182 - Grouped as color additives.
Numbers 200 - 297 - Preservatives and acidity regulators.
Numbers 300 – 322 - Antioxidants.
Numbers 325 – 399 - Food acids, enhancers, stabilizers, and emulsifiers.
Numbers 400 – 495 - Thickeners and emulsifiers.
Numbers 500 – 529 - Mineral Salts.
Numbers 530 – 570 - Anti-Caking Agents.
Numbers 620 – 650 - Flavour Enhancer.
Numbers 950 – 959 - Artificial Sweeteners.

These are the main number groupings you will often find on your food panel in the listed ingredients section, depending on where this additive is approved and your country’s labeling requirements you will often see letters occurring before the number:

- E = Europe/EU
- A = Australia/New Zealand
- U = USA. However, the USA does not always use the International Numbering System, they use labeling per the Federal Food, Drug, and cosmetics act or FD&C.

Colour Codes and Additives - Should I be concerned?

This is a bit of a yes and no two-part answer – not always, with packaged foods, there will always be stabilizers, preservatives, etc. to ensure lifespan and shelf stability of the product. Some flow agents to prevent sticking to equipment in the factory and so on, not all are bad so we cannot lump them all into the ‘this is a concern!’ category.

However, it does pay to be aware of where you are getting the additives from; as some commonly occurring ones translate over to names we know but may not know the code for. For example, In your standard sugar-free drinks or diet/energy drinks, you will have some of the common ones like:

- Sucralose which is coded as E955
- Acesulfame K, Acesulfame Potassium, ACE K is coded E950
- Saccharin is coded as 954

How do I decipher this as I'm in the store?!

We get it, it’s a lot to take in and we don’t expect anyone to remember any of them off the top of their head in the moment, its by no means a science quiz on the periodic table, so you can leave your year 9 periodic table test PTSD where it belongs. Unless, of course, you love that sort of challenge, go for it!

There is a list constructed that will be the most reliable source for food standards in Australia and New Zealand, that is the most up to date model here:


For our USA readers: FDA

For our EU Readers:  EU 

Take-home insight on Color Codes and Additives…

At the end of the day, obviously eating whole foods is the best option – label-free whole foods are usually superior to something that’s been packaged. However, we all do it from time to time. In Australia, food labeling laws require input in descending order from the highest input to the least. So if you’re looking at a label and the first few ingredients are colors and sweeteners before you get to the claimed beneficial ingredients, you're likely to be like hmmm, might skip that one. As a rule of thumb, you want to be reaching for something where these colour codes and additives are appearing on the lower end of the table of ingredients, and the fewer ingredients on the label, in most cases, the better. In essence, treat smart when and where possible.