It is more than 30 years since an American scientist, Ben Feingold, first suggested that artificial food colors and other additives caused overactive, impulsive and inattentive behavior in children; this sort of hyperactivity is known to be a marker for later educational difficulties, especially problems with reading, and antisocial behavior.
Feingold’s work and subsequent studies, however, were dismissed as flawed or inconclusive.
Today’s UK government-commissioned research confirming that food additives commonly found in non-organic children’s food have a detrimental effect on their behavior is the largest trial of its kind. But its findings come as no surprise to campaign groups such as the Hyperactive Children’s Support Group, who have long argued that eliminating junk food can dramatically improve the behavior of some children.
One of the things that makes the latest findings so significant is that the research by the University of Southampton has been so thoroughly conducted and reviewed and cannot be argued away; it is published in medical journal The Lancet today. The study also found there was increased hyperactivity in children with no history of problems.
The leader of the research, Professor Jim Stevenson, said it provided a clear demonstration that changes in behavior could be detected in three-year-old and eight-year-old children who consumed a mix of additives. Researchers at the same department found similar effects in a study seven years ago.
The additives tested were designed to match what a child would be exposed to in a normal diet. The mixes tested included artificial colors used for decades in many products aimed at children and the widely used preservative sodium benzoate. All of the food additives in the test are banned from organic food, so choosing organic soft food, candy, cakes and ice cream means avoiding these food additives.
Since Feingold’s original work, behavioral problems among schoolchildren have risen, as have diagnoses of attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder. Estimates of numbers of children suffering from full ADHD vary: one UK survey estimates that 2.5% of British schoolchildren are affected, and international studies put the figure at 5-10%.
The UK Government’ Food Standards Agency (FSA), which commissioned the study, was taking a cautious line yesterday. Professor Ieuan Hughes, the chairman of its expert committee on the toxicity of chemicals in food (CoT), said that since some children in the study reacted significantly to the additives but others did not, it was not possible to draw conclusions about the effect on the general population. Nor was it possible, he said, to extrapolate from these particular additives to other additives.
The FSA revised its official advice, but only to suggest that parents who think their children show signs of hyperactive behavior should avoid foods containing artificial colors and the preservative sodium benzoate by checking labels. In fact, many of the products which contain these additives – sweets, cakes, ice cream and drinks – are sold without labels.
The FSA has also not issued advice to schools on whether the additives should be banned from school food but advised concerned parents to ask head teachers.
Experts were asking yesterday why it had taken the authorities so long to act and why they had not gone further to remove the additives from food. Tim Lang, professor of food policy at London’s City University, said:
“The first calls to investigate these additives were made 30 years ago. Good for the FSA for finally doing this research but why did it take so long? The FSA must take a tougher pro-child position.”
Since EU legislation regulates the use of additives, the agency has referred the findings to the European Food Safety Authority, which has begun a review of all additives. It recently withdrew approval for one of the first colors it re-examined, Red 2G, which has been used for cosmetic purposes for decades in meat products.
Erik Millstone, professor of science policy at University of Sussex, who has studied the additives industry for many years, criticized the CoT and the FSA response as wholly inadequate. “Stevenson’s team has robustly shown that food additives do adversely affect the behavior, 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 … The complacency of the CoT and FSA officials must now cease,” he said.
Although the FSA and the food industry stressed that the additives had been assessed for safety by the EC, some of the colors have been banned at various times in Scandinavian countries and the US. Also, some were approved many years ago when safety testing did not consider the effect on behavior. Until now, safety testing has looked at individual additives in isolation not in the cocktails in which they are consumed in the diet.
The FSA has been considering the safety of these additives since 2000, when it received the results of a study conducted by the same researchers, known as the Isle of Wight study. That research concluded that significant improvements in children’s behavior could be produced by the removing of colorings and sodium benzoate from their diet. CoT decided that this study was inconclusive, however. The purpose of the latest FSA study was to provide conclusive evidence.
Head teachers who have worked to remove additives from school meals said the research vindicated their efforts. Alan Coode, former head of a primary school in Merton, said: “We knew this all along. When we changed our school meals and removed additives there was a new calmness to the school. The science has just caught up.”
The food industry said it was already removing many artificial colorings. It argues that avoiding sodium benzoate is more difficult because it stops drinks that may have a shelf life of several years going off. The preservative is still very widely used, particularly by soft drinks manufacturers.
PepsiCo said no decision would be taken about its use of additives until it had seen the research. Coca-Cola, GlaxoSmith Kline, which makes energy drinks, and Unilever referred us to the industry’s Food and Drink Federation. Its director of communications, Julian Hunt, said: “It is important to reassure consumers that the Southampton study does not suggest there is a safety issue with the use of these additives. In addition, the way in which the additives were tested as a mixture is not how they are used in everyday products.” He said the industry would continue to reduce the use of additives.
The global additives market is worth more than $25bn (£12.4bn) a year. It grew by 2.4% a year between 2001 and 2004, when the food industry says it was transforming itself, and is growing rapidly.
Article by Felicity Lawrence for The Guardian, UK