Europe’s food safety watchdog has cast doubt on a UK study that claimed to show a possible link between certain artificial food additives and colourings and hyperactivity in children.

The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has concluded that last year’s study, carried out by researchers at Southampton University, should not be used to change EU guidelines on how much of the additives should be consumed.

EFSA said today (14 March) that the study, commissioned by the UK’s Food Standards Agency (FSA), provided “limited evidence” that the mixtures of additives tested had a small effect on the activity and attention of some children.

The watchdog also stated that the effects observed were not consistent for the two age groups and for the two mixtures used in the study.

The study attracted public attention when it claimed to have uncovered the strongest evidence to date of a link between certain artificial food additives and colourings and hyperactivity in children.

Among the colourings and additives tested were sunset yellow colouring, also known as E110; carmoisine, or E122; and the preservative sodium benzoate, or E211.

Among the limitations of the new study, EFSA said, was the inability to pinpoint which additives may have been responsible for the effects observed in the children, given that mixtures and not individual additives were tested.

Industry watchers believe the EFSA findings may cause some embarrassment at the FSA.

The UK agency had suggested that parents of offspring who show signs of hyperactivity or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) might eliminate the colours used in the Southampton study from their children’s diet.

“This puts the FSA in a difficult position,” Richard Watts, coordinator of the Children’s Food Campaign, told just-food. “They helped design the study and the design has been criticised, and they spent a lot of public money on it.”

However, Watts added that EFSA appeared to be “picking holes” in a study that was “very robust”.

The FSA said it would review EFSA’s opinion in detail and discuss this and any further action at its open Board meeting in April.

Julian Hunt, director of communications at the Food and Drink Federation (FDF), which represents food producers, said: “Neither the EFSA opinion nor the Southampton study suggested the safety of the colours researched were in question.”

Hunt also reiterated that “the UK food and drink manufacturing industry has for a number of years been responding to consumers’ demands for fewer artificial additives in food and drinks”.