26 November 2007

Should food additives be banned?

A major British study has showed that certain food additives can cause hyperactivity in children. While this has caused an outcry in Europe, South African authorities remain mum.

Recent media reports have featured articles on the reaction in Britain and the European Union to a study conducted at the University of Southampton which showed that certain food additives can cause hyperactivity in children.

According to the Pretoria News, Dr John Larsen, the head of the European Food Safety Authority Additives Panel, has said that it would be prudent for parents to remove food additives linked to hyperactivity from their children's diets.

When I read this report, I immediately wondered what South Africa is doing to address the problem.

The Southampton study
A team of researchers from the School of Psychology of the University of Southampton published a paper this year on 'Food additives and hyperactive behaviour' (McCann et al, 2007).

This is one of the first well-controlled studies using what is called a randomised, double-blind, placebo-controlled design to investigate how food additives influence childhood behaviour.

The team studied the reactions of 153 three-year-old children and 144 children between the ages of eight and nine years after giving them either a drink containing sodium benzoate (a food preservative) plus two different mixtures of artificial food colourants and additives, or a placebo (dummy) drink.

The addition of artificial colourants and preservatives (Mix A) had a significant negative effect on the behaviour of the three-year-old as well as the eight- to nine-year-old children.

The authors concluded that, "Artificial colours or a sodium benzoate preservative (or both) in the diet result in increased hyperactivity in 3-year-old and 8/9-year-old children in the general population."

Seeing that the researchers didn't select their young subjects from children who already suffered from hyperactivity, these results are indeed serious. They imply that any child who is exposed to certain artificial colourants and/or the preservative sodium benzoate, may start reacting with hyperactive behaviour.

One can just imagine how these artificial additives will react when they're given to children who suffer from attention deficit disorder (ADD).

Implicated additives
According to a statement issued by the Food Standards Agency in Britain, parents are being advised to avoid giving their children foods that contain the following colourants:

  • Sunset yellow (E110)
  • Quinoline yellow (E104)
  • Carmoisine (E122)
  • Allura red (E129)
  • Tartrazine (E102)
  • Ponceau (E124)

Plus the preservative:

  • Sodium benzoate

Ironically the fact that each one of these colourants has a so-called "E-number" indicates that it has been approved for use in human foods and is regarded as 'safe'.

UK reaction
The Food Standards Agency of the UK has immediately reacted to the findings of the Southampton Study by holding a meeting with representative of public interest groups and the British food industry to discuss what steps should and will be taken to address the potentially harmful effect of artificial colours and sodium benzoate on childhood behaviour.

Large food manufacturing companies in the UK have undertaken to remove the additives used in the Southampton Study from their food products, but expressed concern that many smaller food manufacturers may not comply.

Public organisations such as 'Netmums' have also established a dedicated additives webpage that lists foods and drinks that are free of the artificial colours identified in the study. To access the Netmums site, visit and do a search using 'artificial colours' as your search terms.

EU reaction
The European Union has also reacted proactively to the findings and a meeting of the EU Food Safety Authority Additives Panel was already held this Thursday.

The upshot of the meeting is that parents are being advised to avoid giving their children foods that contain the implicated additives. It is possible that both the UK and EU will in future ban the use of these additives in foods and drinks.

The South African situation
As far as I know, no move is currently being made in our country to address this newly identified problem. I sincerely hope that our government organisations and food manufacturers will also take the findings of the Southampton Study to heart and do something about this potential problem.

A ban on the use of sodium benzoate and the colourants listed above would be a step in the right direction to prevent our children from being exposed to harmful psychological effects that "hold back their progress at school and their ability to learn and read at a young age"(Pretoria News, 2007).

Hopefully the new Labelling Regulations which will be published by the Department of Health will at least make it easier for parents to identify foods that contain harmful additives.

In the meantime, I can but echo the statement made by the Southampton team that "additives could cause significant adverse effects in children sufficiently great to represent a threat to health."

If your child suffers from ADD or hyperactivity or if you have noticed that he or she reacts to certain processed foods by becoming restless and less attentive, then try to avoid all foods that contain sodium benzoate and the above-mentioned food colourants.

If you're in doubt because not all food colourants are listed on South African labels, then avoid the given food or drink. Sodium benzoate is listed, so you should be able to eliminate this harmful preservative from your child's diet.

Text copyright: Dr I.V. van Heerden, DietDoc
26 November 2007

(McCann D et al (2007). Food additives & hyperactive behaviour in 3-year-old and 8/9-year-old children in the community: a randomised, double-blinded, placebo-controlled trial. Lancet, 370(9598): 1560-7; Pretoria News (2007). Call for ban on harmful food additive. Pretoria News, Nov 23, 2007, p 17;;

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