Scientists at Europe’s food safety watchdog have completed an assessment of a recent study on the effect of two mixtures of certain food colours and the preservative sodium benzoate on children’s behaviour. The study, published last year by researchers at Southampton University in the United Kingdom (McCann et al, 2007), suggested a link between these mixtures and hyperactivity in children.
The European Food Safety Authority’s (EFSA) AFC Panel, with the help of experts in behaviour, child psychiatry, allergy and statistics, concluded that this study provided limited evidence that the mixtures of additives tested had a small effect on the activity and attention of some children. However, the effects observed were not consistent for the two age groups and for the two mixtures used in the study.
Considering the overall weight of evidence and in view of the considerable uncertainties, such as the lack of consistency and relative weakness of the effect and the absence of information on the clinical significance of the behavioural changes observed, the Panel concluded that the findings of the McCann et al study could not be used as a basis for altering the ADI of the respective food colours or sodium benzoate.
Among the limitations of the new study, was the inability to pinpoint which additives may have been responsible for the effects observed in the children given that mixtures and not individual additives were tested.
Although the findings from the study could be relevant for specific individuals showing sensitivity to food additives in general or to food colours in particular, it is not possible at present to assess how widespread such sensitivity may be in the general population.
The Panel assisted by behavioural experts considered that the significance of the effects on the behaviour of the children was unclear since it was not known if the small changes in attention and activity observed would interfere with schoolwork or other intellectual functioning.
Based on surveys conducted from 2002 to 2005 in sweets and soft drinks, the colours were shown to be frequently used. Sodium benzoate is also often present in soft drinks. The AFC Panel concluded that children who consume brightly coloured sweets and soft drinks could reach intake levels for some of the additives tested in the study that would be similar to the daily amounts given in that study.
The Panel evaluated the McCann et al study against the background of previous studies, going back to the 1970s, on the effect of food additives on behaviour and acknowledged that itis the largest study carried out on a suggested link between food additives and hyperactivity in the general population. The Panel noted that the majority of the previous studies used children described as hyperactive and these were therefore not representative of the general population.
The AFC Panel is currently re-evaluating the safety of all food colours authorised in the European Union on a case-by-case basis and the colours used in the McCann et al study are included in EFSA’s review. Opinions on some of the colours concerned, such as Allura Red, are expected to be adopted by the end of the year.