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European agency rejects links between hyperactivity and food additives

BMJ 2008; 336 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.39527.401644.DB (Published 27 March 2008) Cite this as: BMJ 2008;336:687
  1. Rory Watson
  1. 1Brussels

    The European Food Safety Authority has rejected suggestions in a study by researchers at Southampton University last year of a link between hyperactivity in children and two mixtures of food colours and the preservative sodium benzoate (Lancet 2007;370:1560-7; doi: 10.1016/S0140-6736(07)61306-3).

    In a highly critical assessment, the authority points to considerable uncertainties, lack of consistency, and absence of information in the study, which was commissioned by the UK Food Standards Agency.

    As a result, the authority, which advises the European Union on food safety, maintained that there is no basis for changing present recommendations on the acceptable daily intake of the food colours or sodium benzoate.

    After a request from the European Commission, the Parma based authority asked its panel on food additives, flavourings, processing aids, and food contact materials to assess the study’s findings that the colourings and preservative in the diet led to more hyperactivity in 3 and 8-9 year old children.

    The panel, helped by behavioural experts, considered that the implication of the effects of the substances on children was unclear because it was not known if the small changes in attention and activity that had been seen in the study would interfere with schoolwork or other intellectual activity.

    In its report, published on 14 March, the panel listed its many reservations about the study’s findings. It pointed to the lack of consistency in the results with respect to the age and sex of the children and the type of observer (parent, teacher, or independent assessor); the unknown clinical relevance of the effects measured; and the lack of information on dose-response.

    The panel also maintained that the fact that mixtures were studied made it impossible to identify the effects of individual additives and noted the absence of a plausible biological mechanism that might explain the possible link between behaviour and the consumption of colours.

    The panel, which evaluated the Southampton findings against earlier research on the effect of food additives on behaviour dating from the 1970s, acknowledged that this had been the largest study to date.

    It also accepted that the findings might be relevant for specific people in the population who show sensitivity to food additives in general or to food colours in particular. But it concluded that it was not possible to assess the overall prevalence of such sensitivity in the population as a whole and that reliable data on sensitivity to individual additives were not available.

    The panel is reviewing the safety of all food colours authorised in the European Union on a case by case basis. The additives in the mixtures examined in the Southampton study—tartrazine (E102), quinoline yellow (E104), sunset yellow FCF (E110), ponceau 4R (E124), allura red AC (E129), carmoisine (E122), and sodium benzoate (E211)—are included in the review. Opinions on some of the colours, such as allura red, are expected by the end of the year.

    Footnotes

    • 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: Scientific Opinion of the Panel on Food Additives, Flavourings, Processing Aids, and Food Contact Materials is at www.efsa.europa.eu.

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