FSA Press Release (2007/0702), 6 September 2007
Following the publication of new research commissioned by the Food Standards Agency, parents of children showing signs of hyperactivity are being advised that eliminating certain artificial food colours from their diets might have some beneficial effects on their behaviour.
The revised FSA advice follows evaluation of the research by the independent Committee on Toxicity (COT), carried out by Southampton University , which suggests that consumption of mixes of certain artificial food colours together with the preservative sodium benzoate could be linked to an adverse effect on children's behaviour.
The COT said in its statement:
'We consider that this study has provided supporting evidence suggesting that certain mixtures of artificial food colours together with the preservative sodium benzoate are associated with an increase in hyperactivity in children from the general population. If causal, this observation may be of significance for some individual children across the range of hyperactive behaviours, but could be of more relevance for children towards the more hyperactive end of the scales.'
The FSA has also held an initial scoping meeting with the UK food industry to discuss the research findings and its implications. Representatives from manufacturing and retail organisations told the Agency that there was already a trend within industry towards finding alternatives to the colours used in the study. Representatives also highlighted some technical challenges in developing these alternatives.
Dr Andrew Wadge, the FSA's Chief Scientist, said: 'This study is a helpful additional contribution to our knowledge of the possible effects of artificial food colours on children's behaviour.
'After considering the COT's opinion on the research findings we have revised our advice to consumers: if a child shows signs of hyperactivity or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) then eliminating the colours used in the Southampton study from their diet might have some beneficial effects. However, we need to remember that there are many factors associated with hyperactive behaviour in children. These are thought to include genetic factors, being born prematurely, or environment and upbringing.
'The Agency has shared these research findings with the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), which is currently conducting a review of the safety of all European Union permitted food colours at the request of the European Commission. This review is being undertaken because of the amount of time that has elapsed since these colours were first evaluated.
'Finally, if parents are concerned about any additives they should remember that, by law, food additives must be listed on the label so they can make the choice to avoid the product if they want to.'
The research was commissioned by the Agency to examine the possible effect of certain artificial food colours, together with sodium benzoate preservative, on children's behaviour. Two age groups of children were included – 3 year olds and 8–9 year olds. The study tested combinations of colours and a preservative most likely to be found in foods popular with children such as soft drinks, confectionery, and ice cream.
Proffessor Ieuan Hughes, Chair of the COT, said: 'There are constraints when conducting any research involving children. Whilst this research does not prove that the colours used in the study actually cause increased hyperactivity in children, it provides supporting evidence for a link. It is important to stress that the currently available evidence does not identify whether this association would be restricted to certain food additives or combinations of them.'
Professor Jim Stevenson from Southampton University and author of the report, said: This has been a major study investigating an important area of research. The results suggest that consumption of certain mixtures of artificial food colours and sodium benzoate preservative are associated with increases in hyperactive behaviour in children.
'However, parents should not think that simply taking these additives out of food will prevent hyperactive disorders. We know that many other influences are at work but this at least is one a child can avoid.'
Additional Notes to editors
1.Two mixes of artificial colours were used in the study.
Mix A replicated the food colours and preservatives used in a previous study and consisted of:
Mix B consisted of:
2. Sodium benzoate was present in both the mixtures at a constant level, but the effects observed with the two mixes in the two age groups were not consistent. The Agency therefore considers that, if real, the observed increases in hyperactive behaviour were more likely to be linked to one or more of the specific colours tested.
3. Hyperactivity, in the context of this study, is being used to mean the co-occurrence of the following behaviours: over-activity, inattention and impulsivity. Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) or Hyperkinetic Disorder (HKD) is an extreme form of hyperactivity that is clinically diagnosed when specific patterns of behaviour characterised by inattention, impulsivity and hyperactivity occur together to a strong degree and such that they impair learning and function at home and at school.
4. The COT statement and Lancet paper are available on request