Scientists working for the government’s Food Standards Agency (FSA) tested a range of E-numbers – commonly used in the sweets, biscuits, soft drinks and ice cream – on two groups of children.
After eating the food, the children found it more difficult to sit still and concentrate, had problems reading and became loud and impulsive.
The landmark research, carried out by scientists from Southampton University, involved almost 300 children and has been described as the most authoritative in the world in terms of its scale and duration.
But the FSA has decided that the dramatic findings do not justify a complete ban on the additives. While it has issued a warning about avoiding additives, it is confined to parents who believe their children are already hyperactive. Critics last night condemned the response as ‘totally inadequate’ and a recipe for confusion.
The children in the six-week Southampton trial were split into two groups – one of 153 3-year- olds and the other of 144 8- and 9-year-olds.
The additives tested were tartrazine (E102), ponceau 4R (E124), sunset yellow (E110), carmoisine (E122), quinoline yellow (E104) and allura red AC (E129) and the preservative sodium benzoate, commonly found in soft drinks.
Initially, all the children were changed to diets that did not include artificial additives to set a benchmark. They were then given daily fruit juice drinks, In some weeks, these contained a mixture of additives, in others they were pure.
The children’s behaviour was monitored by parents, teachers and independent observers. None of the participants in the study knew what drinks the children were receiving, to ensure the results were not skewed.
In both groups, children were more hyperactive in the weeks they consumed a cocktail of additives.
Professor Jim Stevenson, who led the research, said: ‘We now have clear evidence that mixtures of certain food colours and benzoate preservative can adversely influence the behaviour of children.’
But the Food & Drink Federation, which represents manufacturers, denied that the research questioned the safety of products. It also questioned the validity of the findings.
Spokesman 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 added: “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 industry continues to respond to consumer demand by reducing the use of additives and there are many food and drink products on supermarket shelves that contain no artificial colours.”
A number of supermarkets and manufactures have introduced their own bans. The makers of Smarties have dropped artificial colours with the result the blue variety has been axed. Marks & Spencer is removing all artificial colours and flavours from 99% of products by the end of the year. Asda is doing the same with 9,000 own-label foods, while Sainsbury’s, Tesco and the Co-op have announced similar action.