The Guardian, September 6, 2007
DANGER TO CHILDREN FROM FOOD AND DRINK ADDITIVES IS EXPOSED
[Rachel's introduction: In England, adults are being advised to check for harmful food additives by scrutinising labels, yet many sweets and cakes are sold loose without labels, as is ice cream. The move has confounded experts and health campaigners, who say the government had missed an opportunity to take a tougher line by banning the additives completely instead of placing a huge burden on parents.]
By Rebecca Smithers, consumer affairs correspondent
Parents are to be warned of the dangers of giving their young children drinks, sweets and cakes containing specified artificial additives, as a result of new findings being made public for the first time today which confirm their link with hyperactivity and disruptive behaviour.
The government's Food Standards Agency is taking the significant step of issuing revised guidance to consumers recommending that they steer clear of products containing certain E-numbers if their children are showing signs of hyperactivity or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
The release of the new public health advice follows the results of the biggest UK study into the links between hyper-activity and chemical food additives, which was commissioned by the government and published today in the medical journal the Lancet.
But the move has confounded experts and health campaigners, who say the government had missed an opportunity to take a tougher line by banning the additives completely instead of placing a huge burden on parents. Adults are being advised to check for additives by scrutinising labels, yet many sweets and cakes are sold loose without labels, as is ice cream.
The FSA also said it would not be issuing any formal advice about the findings to headteachers about the content of school meals via the School Food Trust.
The agency said yesterday it was passing them to the European Food Safety Authority for it to make a decision about a ban as part of re- evaluation of the safety of all food colours.
Hyperactivity is a behaviour officially indicated by increased movement, impulsiveness and inattention, and can impair learning. It is unclear how many people in the UK are affected by hyperactivity conditions. In its more severe form ADHD is believed to affect between 2.4% and 5% of the population.
For their research, scientists from Southampton University recorded the responses of 153 three-year-olds and 144 eight to nine year-olds to mixes of additives placed in different drinks; they found that artificial food colour and additives were having "deleterious effects".
The children drank mixtures of additives, which included artificial colourings and the preservative sodium benzoate, which is commonly used in soft drinks. The mixtures were designed to reflect what a typical child might eat in the course of a normal day.
The results of the Southampton study show that when the children were given the drinks containing the test mixtures there was an increase in hyperactivity. However, the responses were not consistent; some children reacted significantly, others not at all.
The study found that the deterioration in behaviour after consuming the additives occurred in children in the general population, not just in those identified as suffering from hyperactivity.
Professor Jim Stevenson, who headed the Southampton study, said: "We now have clear evidence that mixtures of certain food colours and benzoate preservative can adversely influence the behaviour of children. There is some previous evidence that some children with behavioural disorders could benefit from the removal of certain food colours from their diet."
He said it was his "personal view" that the government could easily have taken a tougher line and banned the colours, although he admitted the issue of sodium benzoate was more complex.
Dr Andrew Wadge, the FSA's chief scientist, said: "We have revised our advice to consumers: if a child shows signs of hyperactivity or ADHD then eliminating the colours used in the Southampton study from their diet might have some beneficial effects."
He went on: "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."
A spokesman for the Hyperactive Children's Support Group said: "This research confirms what many of us have known for 30 years. But we seriously question the implementation of the new advice. Is it practical to expect parents to quiz headteachers about additives in school meals, or to ask parents about the contents of party bags?"
Popular drinks and sweets that still contain one or more of the named additives include Diet Coke, Irn-Bru, Orangina, Refreshers and Skittles.
Richard Watts, coordinator of the Children's Food Campaign, said: "The junk food diet turns out to be bad for children's mental health, as well as their physical health. We need to go further to make parents aware of the potential health problems created by additives, as well as do more to persuade children to eat less E-number-riddled junk food by restricting its marketing and labelling it clearly."
The food and drink additive industry is worth more than $25bn (£12.4bn) a year globally. But the impact of the research will be much wider, affecting the whole of the food and drink industry.
Julian Hunt, of the Food and Drink Federation, stressed the work it had already done to cut additives, and added: "As a responsible industry, we shall be studying the detail of the research and companies will clearly take account of these findings as part of their ongoing review of product formulations. The industry continues to respond to consumer demand by reducing the use of additives... many food and drink products on supermarket shelves contain no artificial colours."
The British Soft Drink Association said in a statement: "All additives, including colours used in food and drink, have been approved by the FSA as being safe for use and are carefully selected and monitored. They are included to meet the expectations of the public about the appearance and shelf-life of products and to enhance the choices that are available to them."
Copyright 2007 Guardian Unlimited