The debate over the link between food additives and colourings and hyperactivity in children has raged for many years but a new study by researchers at the University of Southampton may well have taken the debate to a new level. Ben Cooper assesses the impact the new findings may have on the additives debate.

The idea that a link exists between hyperactivity in children and the use of certain artificial colourings and preservatives in food and drinks is not new. Indeed, the issue is deeply embedded in the public consciousness, to the point that even without conclusive evidence, the use of such ingredients has been declining steadily.

However, a UK study published last week arguably provides the strongest empirical evidence to date of such a link, and may well accelerate the trend towards the removal of such additives from children’s foods and drinks, both in the UK and elsewhere.

According to the researchers, 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.

There are a number of reasons why this research could mark a significant moment in the debate. First and foremost, the study itself is the most extensive yet performed on the subject, and offers key points of difference from previous research.

Secondly, precisely because the subject has been of public concern for such a long time, there is already a trend towards the removal of such products in the UK, as campaigning gathers momentum and retailers begin to see the value in marketing more “free-from” products.

This study, particularly because it was commissioned by an official body, the Food Standards Agency (FSA), could see the debate reach a tipping-point. Moreover, with particular regard to the UK, there has been an early indication that the new Prime Minister may be more prepared to legislate in this area.

The research has also been published as the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) is conducting a review into the safety of food colourings. The FSA has passed the findings on to EFSA, so the research may well have an influence in shaping EU policy.

Professor Jim Stevenson, who led the research group at the University of Southampton, believes it to be significant because of some fundamental points of difference from previous studies.

“There are a number of ways in which our study was an improvement on what had been available before,” Professor Stevenson tells just-food. “The first is a distinction. We were studying children from the general population rather than from special clinics.” This may not only be significant from a scientific standpoint, but is also likely to increase the study’s relevance and interest to the general public.

In addition, it was both larger, comprising a group of some 153 three-year-olds and 144 eight- and nine-year-olds, and conducted over a longer period of time than any previous study. “As far as I am aware there is no other study of this magnitude,” Stevenson says. In addition, he points out, this study had a more extensive control for placebo effects than any previous work, and also covered two distinct age groups.

So far, possibly to the relief of food producers, there has been little sign of a knee-jerk reaction by the FSA. The study was reviewed by the FSA’s independent Committee on Toxicity (CoT), which said it provided supporting evidence suggesting certain mixtures of artificial food colours with sodium benzoate are associated with an increase in hyperactivity in children from the general population. If causal, the CoT’s summary continues, this could be of significance for some individuals across the range of hyperactive behaviours, but could be more relevant to those at the upper end of the scale.

The FSA’s revised guidance suggested that 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. In addition, the FSA said that 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 wish.

However, the FSA’s response has been criticised by some academics and pressure groups. Erik Millstone, professor of science policy at University of Sussex, said the response was inadequate. “Stevenson’s team has robustly shown that food additives do adversely affect the behaviour, not only of children diagnosed as hyperactive, but normal healthy children too. The CoT pretends that these results have no implications for the general population or for food additives as a whole,” Millstone said, calling for an end to official “complacency” on the issue.

Also of comfort to food companies will be the fact that the FSA met with industry representatives to discuss the findings before they were published, and judging from the tenor of the official statements seems satisfied with the measures food companies are taking to find alternatives, and understanding of the difficulties in finding alternatives in some instances.

For its part, the association representing the food industry in the UK, the Food and Drink Federation (FDF), said the Southampton study did not suggest there is a safety issue with the use of these additives, adding that the way in which the additives were tested as a mixture is not how they are used in everyday products. It also stated that the additives used in the study were all legally permitted and their inclusion in any formulation would by law be clearly labelled.

However, the FDF said that “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 FDF also pointed out that in response to consumer demand, the use of additives was being reduced and there are many food and drink products on supermarket shelves that contain no artificial colours.

The British Retail Consortium (BRC), which represents major retailers, took a similar line but seemed to place more emphasis on the fact that its members were steadily reducing the number of products containing such additives that they sold, largely in response to consumer demand.

Richard Watts, coordinator of the Children’s Food Campaign at the food and agriculture pressure group Sustain, also pointed to increased public awareness as a critical factor. He said the public have generally been persuaded of some sort of link long before experts were, and that this latest research would have great resonance with consumers. He added that he believed we are now seeing a major shift in the debate as the public increasingly sees food industry representatives as vested interests and regards the views of campaign groups as commanding greater validity.

Watts was also critical of the FSA’s response. “That rather limp advice is the only confirmed change to their guidelines,” he said. “I don’t think they can hold the line here.”

Another important factor in the debate is the willingness of Gordon Brown and his administration to support regulatory intervention. Some campaigners believe the new Prime Minister will be more prepared to support regulation than his predecessor.

To a degree, this view was supported by Brown’s first statements on the matter, which were made at a Citizen’s Jury in Bristol shortly after the results were published. He said that all parents would be worried by the findings, adding that consumers could not be expected to check the ingredients of every item on the shelf and relied on the authorities to ensure there were no additives in food that put their children at risk. This could be seen as being at odds with the FSA’s revised guidance. The Prime Minister called for a debate to decide what the right standards should be going forward. Some commentators have suggested Mr Brown will push for a stronger EU line on food additives.

This will have given succour to campaigners who will be confident that the publication of the Southampton findings and the ongoing EFSA review will keep this issue in the public eye for some time to come. As a result, pressure on the food industry and possibly on the FSA itself is only likely to intensify.