E numbers are codes for chemicals which can be used as food additives for use within the European Union (the "E" prefix stands for "Europe") and Switzerland. 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 colours. In 1964 the directives for preservatives was added, 1970 for antioxidants and 1974 for the emulsifiers, stabilisers, thickeners and gelling agents.
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“The growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”
—George Eliot [Mary Ann (or Marian)