A Swiss Company Writes…How Can Zein Be Approved for Food Use in the European Union? What Are E Numbers?

by Jeanne Yacoubou, MS
VRG Research Director

A Swiss company that buys and sells raw materials intended for food use in the European Union (EU) recently wrote The VRG asking about getting the corn protein, zein, approved for food use in the EU. The VRG recently wrote an article on zein: http://www.vrg.org/blog/2010/12/13/zein-used-for-shellac-biodegradable-coatings-diapers%E2%80%A6 Because zein is currently considered a value-added co-product of bioethanol production, new food as well as industrial uses for zein are being actively pursued by several American companies.

In the United States, zein has GRAS status (Generally Recognized as Safe) for food use by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The analogous agency in the EU, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), would be responsible for giving food use status to zein, after conducting a review of zein’s safety usually after a petition by a company or organization requesting that zein be extended such status.

If deemed safe for food use, zein could be used in foods manufactured in the EU and sold there or to non-European countries. Zein would be given an “E number” (“E” stands for “Europe”): a number code for food additives approved for use in the EU. E numbers appear frequently on food labels in the EU and increasingly, though still infrequently, on North American packaging.

Several hundred substances have E numbers. Shellac, for example, which was replaced by zein for a short period in the mid-20th century in the United States when shellac was in short supply, is identified as “E904.” E numbers may have a pejorative connotation in some European countries with respect to certain artificial food additives (such as artificial colors), but E numbers apply to ingredients such as vitamin C, lecithin, and pectin which are naturally found in many types of foods and have GRAS status.

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