Manufacturers and regulators should take concerns about the possible detrimental effects of some food additives more seriously, according to an expert on diet and ageing.
Peter Piper, professor of molecular biology at the University of Sheffield, was commenting in the wake of a new study from the University of Southampton linking some artificial food colourings and sodium benzoate (E211) to hyperactivity in children.
Piper provoked a storm of controversy earlier this year when he published the results of lab tests on yeast cells suggesting that the preservative sodium benzoate (E211) could cause cell damage.
The latest study, which was commissioned by the Food Standards Agency (FSA), found that some children given drinks containing combinations of Sunset Yellow (E110), Quinoline Yellow (E104), Carmoisine (E122), Allura Red (E129), Ponceau 4R (E124) and Tartrazine (E102), along with sodium benzoate (E211), became “significantly more hyperactive” than those in control groups.
“I know that I am regarded as a troublemaker,” said Piper, “but more research is needed before we can say that additives that gained regulatory approval decades and decades ago are safe. They were only testing for certain things, and things have moved on since then.” While it was reassuring that the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) was now reassessing all additives (with priority given to colours), this process was long overdue, he said. “It took 30 years for the authorities to take benzene [a carcinogen caused by the reaction between vitamin C and sodium benzoate] seriously, and in the meantime, we’ve all been drinking the stuff.”
However, the fact that EFSA was re-evaluating all E-numbers was clear evidence that the authorities were not ignoring the concerns of academics, lobby groups or parents, said Richard Ratcliffe, executive secretary of the Food Additives and Ingredients Association. “The ingredients studied are legally permitted under EU law so we welcome the fact that the FSA is referring the Southampton research to EFSA as part of its ongoing review of all food additives.”
It was important to stress that the Southampton study referred to child behaviour and was not a food safety issue, added the Food and Drink Federation’s director of communications Julian Hunt. Further research was also required in order to isolate precisely which additives were responsible for the changes in behaviour, he added. “It is important to reassure consumers that this 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…The industry continues to respond to consumer demand by reducing the use of additives.”
The British Soft Drinks Association (BSDA) said members would “continue to look at alternatives to the colours used in the Southampton study” and was working hard to find alternatives to sodium benzoate, which is widely used in everything from carbonated soft drinks to salad dressings and fruit juices to prevent the growth of micro-organisms. However, many alternatives, such as sulphur dioxide, were equally unpopular. Another approach was to use aseptic filling processes, which enable companies to bottle drinks in sterile conditions in order to avoid using preservatives, but this was expensive and only suitable for certain products.
As the Southampton study used two drinks, both containing different combinations of additives, it was not possible to determine precisely which E-numbers might have contributed to the hyperactivity, said the FSA.
However, given that the effects observed with the two drinks were not consistent, and sodium benzoate was present in both of them at a constant level, the hyperactive behaviour was “more likely to be linked to one or more of the colours tested”, rather than to the preservative, it suggested.
Professor Jim Stevenson, who led the study, said: “There is some previous evidence that some children with behavioural disorders could benefit from the removal of certain food colours from their diet. We have now shown that for a large group of children in the general population, consumption of certain mixtures of artificial food colours and benzoate preservative can influence their hyperactive behaviour.”
The FSA has held an initial meeting with manufacturers to discuss the research findings and implications. Chief scientist Dr Andrew Wadge said: “After considering the FSA’s Committee on Toxicology’s opinion on the research findings we have revised our advice to consumers: if a child shows signs of hyperactivity or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) then eliminating the colours used in the Southampton study from their diet might have some beneficial effects.”