Food and Behaviour Research

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6 September 2007 - BBC News - Parents warned of additives link

food additives

Parents have been warned of the effects of food additives on their children's behaviour after new research found a possible link to hyperactivity.


Results from this new randomised controlled trial - supported by the UK Food Standards Agency - provide further evidence that certain artificial food colourings and other additives can contribute to disruptive behaviour in children. Previous research has already shown adverse effects of such additives in

This new trial confirms the earlier findings in 3 year olds and extends these to older children (aged 8-9 years) from the general population. The authors conclude 'the implications of these results for the regulation of food and additive use could be substantial'

The FSA's response (and much of the article below) focuses primarily on children with overt hyperactivity / ADHD. This seems to miss the point somewhat - as this research specifically involved children from the general population. Any regulatory changes would need to be at EU level, but the FSA is said to be discussing with the food industry how levels of these these additives might be reduced.

See McCann et al (2007) - The Lancet


Food Standards Agency (FSA) study on 300 randomly selected children found hyperactivity rose after a drink containing additive combinations.

The FSA now says hyperactive children might benefit from fewer additives.

But experts said drugs rather than diet changes could improve behaviour more effectively in the most severe cases.

Between 5% and 10% of school-age children suffer some degree of ADHD - attention deficit hyperactivity disorder - researchers suggest, with symptoms such as impulsiveness, inability to concentrate and excessive activity.

More boys than girls are diagnosed with the condition, and children with ADHD can struggle academically, often behaving poorly in school.

Food colourings and other chemicals added to many cakes, sweets and drinks have long been blamed for making the disorder worse.


  • Sunset yellow (E110) - Colouring found in squashes
  • Carmoisine (E122) - Red colouring in jellies
  • Tartrazine (E102) - New colouring in lollies, fizzy drinks
  • Ponceau 4R (E124) - Red colouring
  • Sodium benzoate (E211) - Preservative
  • Quinoline yellow (E110) - Food colouring
  • Allura red AC (E129) - Orange / red food dye

This is not the first study to make a link between additives and hyperactive behaviour, but a wider age range of children were selected than in previous research, and not all had behavioural problems.

Behaviour check

The Food Standards Agency paid for Southampton University researchers to examine whether giving additives to a group of ordinary three-year-olds and eight or nine-year-olds had any effect on their behaviour.

The children were randomly given one of three drinks, either a potent mix of colourings and additives, a drink that roughly matched the average daily additive intake of a child of their age, or a "placebo" drink which had no additives.

Their hyperactivity levels were measured before and after the drink was taken. Mix "A", with the high levels of additives, had a "significantly adverse" effect compared with the inactive placebo drink.

The older children showed some adverse effects after the second, less potent mix, although the response varied significantly from child to child.

Lead researcher Professor Jim Stevenson said the study, published in the Lancet, showed that certain mixtures of artificial food colours, alongside sodium benzoate, a preservative used in ice cream and confectionary, were linked to increases in hyperactivity.

He added: "However, parents should not think that simply taking these additives out of food will prevent hyperactive disorders.

"We know that many other influences are at work but this at least is one a child can avoid."

He said it was not possible to say which of the ingredients in the additives cocktail affected the children.

Industry talks

The results of the research meant a change in official advice from the FSA, which has already met representatives of the UK food industry to talk about its implications.

The researchers pointed out that while artificial colours might be removed from foods easily, the removal of sodium benzoate would cause far more problems for the industry.

Julian Hunt, from the Food and Drink Federation, said they accepted the FSA's advice but said the tests did not represent how additives were used normally.

"Manufacturers are very aware of consumer sensitivities about the use of additives in food and drink products. It is important to reassure consumers that the Southampton study does not suggest there is a safety issue with the use of these additives."

However, Andrea Bilbow, from ADHD support group ADDISS, said most parents of children with ADHD had tried diet changes, and while more than half had reported some improvement, this tended to be modest when compared with the effect of medication.

She said: "In some respects the question of food additives is a little bit of a red herring.

"While in some cases, a poor diet could make ADHD even worse, a better diet is not going to make it much better."

And Dr Paul Illing, of the Royal Society of Chemistry, raised questions about the validity of the study.

"Extrapolating from the small study population to the general public is very difficult."