When, several years ago, I decided to switch to a fully vegan diet, I had to embark on a small voyage of discovery. Many foods I had not expected to contain animal products, turned out to be full of them. Since that time, I have often talked to other vegans about our dietary habits and often had "did-you-know" moments. Another product that turns out to be inedible. Within two weeks I started to check the label before consuming anything. To all who rarely, if ever, do so, I can greatly recommend trying it a few times. You will be surprised with what they put in your food.
There are a few non-vegan E-numbers. After a few years of veganism, I can generally check a label within a second or two, sometimes even in other languages. The fact that many allergens are now in bold-face helps a lot. So does the use of E-numbers. However, in recent years I've noticed more and more manufacturers are listing long chemical names. Turns out, these are simply the full names of the E-numbers. Nice...
The usefulness of E-numbers
There is a lot of valid criticism on the EU, but there are also a few things that are incredibly useful. E-numbers are a good example. Since the second half of the last century we have started eating more and more processed foods. Without additives, food tends to discolour or rot quickly. Governments throughout the world have created special institutions dedicated to collating research and, based on as much information as possible, make judgments on which additives are allowed to be used. In the EU this organisation is the European Food Safety Authority. This organisation is responsible for the E-number list.
This process of collating data isn't foolproof. New research can always bring to light new problems. Furthermore, individuals can have different, personal standards for the food they consume. Personally, I wish not to eat any non-vegan E-numbers. However, the great advantage of the E-number list is its uniformity throughout Europe. If I want to avoid E120 in Ireland, I can easily do this in France or the Netherlands as well. E120 is the same compound throughout the EU. Because of the E-numbers list, people who are allergic to certain compounds, or have other reasons to avoid E-numbers, can easily avoid them throughout Europe in spite of any language barriers.
A chemical name is now less scary
Unfortunately, this great advantage of E-numbers is also its greatest weakness: they are easily spotted. When reading a label in a store, every E-number stands out. What they exactly do is not exactly clear from the code, which makes people wonder what they are there for. It seems more and more people are worried about every single E-number. In the past year, I see more and more labels simply listing a few lengthy words. When I get out my phone and look up the name, it turns out these are just E-numbers. It still looks odd, but it doesn't look like there are any E-numbers in the product. A chemical name has become less scary than an E-number. To me, this seems like a great disadvantage. I don't want to accidentally consume non-vegan E-numbers because I couldn't properly read a label because of language differences, or by missing them while scanning the label. People who want to avoid some, or all, E-numbers or are allergic to some are also disadvantaged this way.
Additives exist to make food we store for an extended period of time look better, and to keep them relatively safe to eat. Many fungi and bacteria that would otherwise get their chance are far from healthy. I don't wish to make any statements about the actual healthiness of E-numbers. I'm not a food scientist and lack the appropriate information. If I can choose between a product with few or many additives, I would always choose the one with few additives. This, however, is my own preference.
Processed food are a logical effect of an economic system which allows people little free time. Next to that, corporations want to reduce risks and, thus, want to make sure they don't have to throw away too much. The longer food will stay edible, the lower the risk they have to throw any away and miss out on profits. In any case, I believe it's more healthy to eat fresh and seasonal food. However, this requires a certain amount of time and effort and it does not surprise me that many working people don't always have the time or energy required. Classical methods of preserving food, like pickling or home canning our own food takes even more time and effort. As such, additives will remain necessary. I would cheer when we finally have an economic system where we can all fill our bellies with appropriate care, love, and attention. Until that time, it is necessary for people to know what's in their food so that those with specific needs or desired do not consume something they can't or don't want to.