Food additives proven to trigger hyperactivity, so why not ban them?

Here in the UK, the kids are back at school which is usually a cue for some “child-focused stories to emerge in the press. One pearl of a story that recently surfaced concerned a trial in which certain food additives (colourings, mainly) were tested in children aged 3 and 8-9. This research, undertaken in Southampton, UK, found that these additives appeared to spark ‘hyperactive’ behaviour in children [1].

The offending items tested in the study included E211 or sodium benzoate (a preservative) and the food dyes E102 (tartrazine), E104 (quinoline yellow), E110 (sunset yellow), E122 (carmoisine), and E129 (allura red). The UK Government agency the Food Standards Agency has issued a warning about regarded these additives, and offers the following advice:

“�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.”

And then, ever so helpfully, the FSA adds: “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.”

No talk of a ban then? Nope. Or even some restriction on the addition of these chemicals in the food supply. ‘Fraid not. No doubt the reasons for the FSA’s decision to shift the onus of responsibility away from food manufacturers and on to parents are complex. However, perhaps this tack have something to do with the seemingly cosy relationship the FSA has with the food industry.

The FSA’s statement includes this rather telling passage: The FSA has held an initial meeting with the UK food industry to discuss the research findings and its implications. Representatives from manufacturing and retail organisations told the Agency there was already a trend within industry towards finding alternatives to the colours used in the study. Some technical challenges in developing these alternatives were also highlighted.�

How does that read to you? To me, it suggests that the food industry has spouted the usual rhetoric about taking positive steps, but that for reasons that relate primarily their bottom line (profit, not public health), nothing much is going to happen any time soon.

As I have pointed out before, those responsible for advising the FSA can have close ties with the food industry. The FSA is advised on policy by a committee called the Advisory Committee on Research (ACR). For a list of the members of this committee and their ‘interests’ click here. Many members of the committee benefit financially directly from the food industry. Note also that one member is a full time employee of the food conglomerate Unilever.

Would it be too much to ask of the body responsible for setting food policy in the UK to find advisors that are not full-time employees of food companies and are not so financially intertwined with the food industry? Apparently so. And while such a potentially unwholesome relationship exists, my belief is that the FSA has a serious credibility issue.


1. McCann D, et al. Food additives and hyperactive behaviour in 3-year-old and 8/9-year-old children in the community: a randomised, double-blinded, placebo-controlled trial. The Lancet DOI:10.1016/S0140-6736(07)61306-3

6 Responses to Food additives proven to trigger hyperactivity, so why not ban them?

  1. David Bradley 10 September 2007 at 1:30 pm #

    How on earth did this study get to make it as “news”. I have sitting on my desk right now a copy of Hanssen’s 1984 book “E for Additives” on pages 12-14 he discusses the evidence (some of which was known in the 1970s) concerning the likes of tartrazine on children’s behaviour. Gee my mother-in-law blamed food colourings in orange juice for my wife’s younger brother’s wakefulness as long ago as 1977!


  2. Ian 11 September 2007 at 8:37 am #

    Is that a typo in the last paragraph???

    “…find advisors that are full-time employees of food companies…”

    should read

    “…find advisors that are NOT full-time employees of food companies…”

  3. Dr John Briffa 11 September 2007 at 8:52 am #

    Thanks Ian – have corrected this now.

  4. rm 14 September 2007 at 7:35 pm #

    I found the list of corporate associates that control advice to the Government interesting, but as i don’t know the companies and organizations it has not much meaning. Also I know that an organization that claims to be one thing (animal health or ???) may be more interested in total animal product output. More beef, more milk and more eggs for the production cost.
    I believe we have the same problem here. I am going to search for a list of corporate-government merry-go-round riders and try to make them famous. Perhaps you might do the same. rm

  5. Tiggy 26 September 2007 at 2:00 am #

    It’s not just kids that get hyper from food colourings. If I have E122 (Carmoisine) it makes me aggressive. They have it in some brands of that rose flavour cordial that’s popular with Indian people in milkshakes and desserts.

    Also when my nephew was a toddler he had just a small amount of that cordial and he went hysterical in a way we’ve never seen before or since. Apparently kids in India drink it a lot – maybe the weather makes a difference.


  1. Food Glorious (Chemically Adulterated) Food : ideas - 19 September 2007

    […] This from Dr Briffa’s blog after noting that the FSA advice to parents on dangerous food colourings and additives is a very bland: […]

Leave a Reply