The so-called Southampton study (McCann et al, 2007) was funded by the UK's Food Standards Agency. It investigated the effects of two mixtures of commonly used food colours and sodium benzoate on the behaviour of two childrens' age groups. The colours used were sunset yellow (E110), tartrazine (E102), carmoisine (E122), ponceau 4R (E124), quinoline yellow (E104), and allura red (E129).
The study’s publication in The Lancet has caused strong reactions from consumer groups and politicians. After having been criticised for its initial handling, in which it moderately changed its advice parents, the UK’s Food Standards Agency has said that the colours will be phased out in that country by the end of 2009.
A campaign called ‘Kids First’ in Australia would like its regulator to do the same. The campaign is backed by a three groups, Additive Alert, Food Intolerance Network, and Additive Education.
This week they sent a harshly-worded letter to Philippa Smith, chair of FSANZ (Food Standards Australia and New Zealand), signalling concern that the regulator has not altered its advice in the light of the Southampton study.
Existing advice states that the additives only cause a reaction in a small percentage of people, according to the letter; its authors say the study shows a reaction in children in general, not just those with a history of hyperactivity.
“Clearly, in this case, FSANZ is knowingly continuing to allow additives which are potentially detrimental to children in general to be used widely throughout our foods.”
The letter, which has been signed by over a hundred health care professionals, academics, and people in the public eye, contains four recommendations:
· That FSANZ follows the UK example and phases out all six of the Southampton colours by the end of 2009;
· to require mandatory warning labels in the meantime, with wording such as “This product contains additives which are not recommended for children”;
· to instigate legislation to ban the colours by 2010;
· and to take action to see that research is undertaken on other additives for which anecdotal evidence of ill effects exists.
Additives around the world
The swell of resistance to additives puts food manufacturers in the spotlight if they remove the colours from products in some colours but do not take parallel action in others, either because regulations do not require them to or because there is not the same level of consumer pressure.
For instance, Nestle has removed all artificial colours from its Smarties confectionery products in the UK – a move that was not without its challenges as it was some time before spirulina was identified as a suitable source of natural blue. In the meantime, once-blue smarties were white.
According to the Kids First campaign the company has not taken the same action in Australia and New Zealand.
On a European level, the Southampton colours have attracted considerable attention from MEPs, who voted in July for products containing the colours to be labelled "may have an adverse effect on activity and attention in children".
Some industry commentators have called the labelling, which will be mandatory in 18 months, a de facto ban since no marketer would use such wording on products for children.
The Parliament decision came despite the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) having reviewed the methodology and results of the Southampton study and saying it found no scientific evidence for altering intake recommendations of any of the additives.
However EFSA is in the process of reviewing the available safety data on all food additives, and the Southampton colours are included in this.
EFSA is the EU’s independent risk assessor. Its scientific opinions are mandated by the European Commission, but they are not law; the law-makers are under no obligation to act in accordance with EFSA’s view.
Sodium benzoate off the hook
The authors of the letter to FSANZ said they “recognise that there are criticisms of the Southampton study, and the results do not prove cause and effect”.
In particular they noted that mixtures of additives were used in the study, making it impossible to attribute the observed effect to any chemicals in particular.
But since sodium benzoate was used in two different test mixtures and the results for each different, they believe the effects “most likely came from one or more of the colourings”.
They also explained that they are excluding sodium benzoate from their recommendations since it does perform an anti-mould and anti-bacterial function in products. The colours, on the other hand, are present merely to make products more visually appealing.