A colourful panic about food additives

The UK's food watchdog has demanded that six artificial colours be banned from food - despite weak evidence linking them to hyperactivity.

Rob Johnston

Topics Politics

Whether food additives have any negative effect on children is open to question, yet the board of the UK Food Standards Agency (FSA) definitely seems to be suffering from hyperactivity. Last Thursday, the FSA asked UK food and drink manufacturers to stop using six colouring agents by the end of the 2008, even though the study used to justify this demand was seriously criticised by the FSA’s counterparts in Europe.

Additives also seem to cause agitation at the University of Southampton, which produced the latest inconclusive research and is pitching for an extra £5.25million grant to do the work properly. Professor Jim Stevenson, leader of the Southampton team, stoked up pressure on the FSA by suggesting that additives could be as ‘dangerous as lead in petrol’ (1), a type of ‘campaigning science’ reminiscent of Dr Andrew Wakefield and the MMR scare.

This latest pronouncement from the FSA follows a course tried and tested by this government:

  1. Commission a study – then ignore the results;
  2. Ask ‘experts’ to review the study – then ignore their recommendations;
  3. Do what the most hysterical sections of the media want you to;
  4. Pretend to have acted decisively – and ‘in the public interest’.

The Southampton study was published in the Lancet in 2007. It aimed to detect ‘hyperactivity’ when children were given one of two different mixtures of four artificial colourings (from the six ‘suspects’) plus the ‘natural’ preservative sodium benzoate. (For more on the study itself, see Who’s afraid of… food additives?, by Rob Lyons).

There are a number of problems with the Southampton study. For example, food scarists have been campaigning against sodium benzoate for years because they believe it causes hyperactivity on its own. If they’re right, the entire Southampton study is meaningless because both active mixtures contained significant amounts of sodium benzoate.

Stevenson et al claim that the mixtures of additives and sodium benzoate produced significantly more hyperactivity in three-year-olds and eight- to nine-year-olds than did placebo drinks (2). But they could not determine which of the five ingredients in each mixture (seven in total) might be responsible.

Members of the EU can only take unilateral action on additives ‘if there is evidence of a serious risk to public health’. Because the Southampton study did not contain such evidence, in 2007 the FSA said it would do nothing and passed the buck to the European Food Standards Agency (EFSA).

The EFSA considered the Southampton study for six months. Its report, published on 14 March 2008, was damning. Among its criticisms were the following:

  • The results were too confused to make any sensible conclusions. Findings were inconsistent with respect to age, gender of the children, or which of the two additive mixtures was used;
  • Results were only positive using the assessment of parents but not by those of teachers,’independent observers’ or computer monitoring;
  • Hyperactivity was measured with a new and unproven combination of criteria;
  • Effect could have been caused by any one of the seven different individual additives;
  • There was no information on whether high doses made children more hyperactive than low doses or how long after ingestion any effects occurred. (3)

The EFSA concluded that ‘the findings of the study cannot be used as a basis for altering the ADI [acceptable daily intake] of the respective food colours or sodium benzoate’.

In a strangely worded retort, Professor Stevenson admitted that ‘the effects of individual additives and dose-response effects… were never going to be addressed by the Southampton Study’ because the FSA had not provided enough funding. Stevenson said he might be able to answer the right questions with (at least) another £5.25million (4). Undeterred, Stevenson continued to demand a ban on all six additives; the FSA has now endorsed his view.

This call can only spread unjustified alarm, particularly when FSA focus groups reveal widespread popular ignorance about what is added to food (5). Many members of the public believe that ‘all additives are bad’ and that ‘the higher the E number, the worse it is’ (E numbers are simply codes for food additives used in the European Union). Instead of providing better information, the FSA deliberately stoked up anxiety last year with a new website – – which encourages worried parents to spot and report products that contain the ‘suspect six’ colouring agents. So far, over 900 such products have been identified – solely to create the impression that the FSA is ‘doing something’.

The FSA has changed from a proper regulatory body to one driven by PR. There has always been an inclination at the FSA to overreact to food scares, as illustrated by the agency’s response to the discovery of Sudan I food dye in some ready meals in 2005 (6). But the rot really seems to have started two years ago when the distinguished scientist Sir John Krebs retired as the FSA’s chair and was replaced by Dame Deirdre Hutton. Hutton is a former chair of the National Consumer Council and a long-term quangocrat with a host of agencies renowned for knee-jerk reactions to media pressure – including the Sustainable Development Commission, various divisions of the Environment Agency and Energy Advisory Panels.

Ironically, Dame Deirdre gave a major speech in Dublin last year, entitled ‘Why evidence is essential’, which concluded: ‘We need authoritative evidence. Evidence that identifies the most effective levers and tools that help people make changes for themselves. Evidence that convinces the food industry to produce and promote healthier foods. And evidence powerful enough, and thoughtfully conveyed, which helps people change eating habits that have been ingrained over a lifetime.’ (7)

When it comes to pandering to the Daily Mail’s campaign against ‘additives’, Dame Deidre and her bold new FSA demonstrate that most crucial aspect of the modern approach to ‘evidence’ – ignore whatever is inconvenient.

Rob Johnston is a writer on the environment, health and science.

Previously on spiked

Rob Johnston had no beef with cloned food. Channapatna S Prakash wrote that man has manipulated food crops for centuries, so we should embrace genetic modification. Josie Appleton emphasised the benefits of therapeutic cloning. Rob Lyons revealed the truth about organic food. Justine Brian defended cheap chicken. Nathalie Rothschild took issue with the Food Standards Agency’s ‘traffic-light’ labels. Or read more at spiked issue Food.

(1) Statement on the implications of FSA funded study Project code: T07040 Chronic and acute effects of artificial colourings and preservatives on children’s behaviour., Annex 3, Food Standards Agency, 10 April 2008

(2) 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, Lancet, 6 September 2007

(3) EFSA: Assessment of the results of the study by McCann et al. (2007) on the effect
of some colours and sodium benzoate on children’s behaviour
, Food Standards Agency, 7 March 2008

(4) Statement on the implications of FSA funded study Project code: T07040 Chronic and acute effects of artificial colourings and preservatives on children’s behaviour., Annex 3, Food Standards Agency, 10 April 2008

(5) Cragg Ross Dawson: Qualitative Research. Food Standards Agency communications on
food additives and children’s behaviour
, Food Standards Agency, October 2007

(6) Don’t panic: the dangers of dye, spiked, 21 February 2005

(7) Why evidence is essential, Food Standards Agency, 1 May 2007

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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