Food and Behaviour Research

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The additive-packed children's tea

Rebecca Seal

Coloured sweets

Should you worry about 'E' numbers?


By Alex Richardson

Not all food additives are bad news, by any means (some are needed to keep food safe).

But as this article shows, there can be more in your food than you think. The additives that should be unnecessary in most cases include colourings, flavourings and sweeteners, along with 'texture-modifying agents'. Real food just doesn't need these!

What's convinced me that many artificial additives should be avoided as far as possible is:

1) good evidence that some of these can have damaging effects on children's behaviour - particularly certain artificial food colourings 


2) the fact that safety testing can't possibly take combinations of additives into account - and yet in practice, they are almost always consumed in combinations.

I've therefore covered this topic in some depth in my book, They Are What You Feed Them (from which all author proceeds are dedicated to FAB Research).

20 August 2006 - The Observer Food Monthly


All additives that have 'E' numbers have been approved for use in food by the EU. However, eminent scientists such as physiologist Dr Alex Richardson of Oxford University argue that millions of experiments would be needed to test the most common additives in conjunction with each other.

Not all additives are bad per se, but they are often used to conceal poor-quality ingredients - like the rendered fat in some cheap sausages, or to keep grey meat pink. Dr Richardson is also convinced that additives have a negative effect on some children's behaviours. While colourings and other additives have been shown to be toxicologically safe, behaviour change isn't one of the things toxicologists normally test for.

If you generally want your children to have an additive-free diet, a party tea like the one shown here should be no more than an occasional indulgence. Nutritionist Jane Clarke goes one step further and says she avoids giving foods like these to her own child altogether.

Monosodium glutamate (MSG or E621). Recent research suggests that, in combination with other common additives MSG has a 'synergistic' effect, meaning that the impact of the additives is increased - in Dr Vyvyan Howard's recent Liverpool University study, common food-colouring brilliant blue (E133) plus MSG had four times the slowing effect on the growth of immature nerve cells. Glutamate manufacturers point out that glutamate is a naturally occurring amino acid, and that MSG has been used safely in food for nearly 100 years.

Sodium nitrite (E250) is a colour fixer and anti-bacterial agent. It can react with other chemicals to produce nitrosamines, which cause cancer in animals when consumed in large quantities, but in the EU it's only allowed in very low levels - mixed with salt at 0.6 per cent.

Sulphur dioxide (E220) is a sulphite compound which Dr Richardson says should be avoided along with sulphites with E numbers from E220 to E228. Dr Richardson goes on to suggest that sulphites may aggravate the symptoms of autism. The Food Standards Agency disagrees. It considers this - and all other chemicals mentioned here - as safe, although the agency does say sulphur dioxide can trigger asthma attacks in very sensitive individuals.

Nutritionist Patrick Holford says, 'when children get an "up" from sugar, they then get a low straight afterwards known as rebound hypo-glycaemia. This can cause a surge in adrenaline of up to five times normal levels, which is what causes irritability and aggression.'

L-cysteine (E920) is found in baked goods, and although its source is not listed, the cheapest way to get it at present is from human hair ...

As food scientist Harold McGee has pointed out, processed cheese 'makes use of surplus, scrap and unripened materials manufacturers use a blend ofsodium citrate, sodium phosphates and sodium polyphosphates'. Yum.

Malic acid (E296) gives sweets a sour flavour, but too much can irritate the mouth.

Quinoline yellow (E104, a member of the quinoline family of dyes), is banned in Australia, Japan, Norway and the US.

Sunset yellow (E110) is a dye which in combination with other common additives was linked to behavioural problems in a landmark 2004 Isle of Wight study. According to Lizzie Vann, author of Carrots or Chemistry?, an investigation into snacking and child health, ponceau 4R (E124 or cochineal Red A), also implicated in the Isle of Wight study, andindigo carmine (E132) appear to cause allergic reactions in vulnerable people, such as asthmatics. Green S (E142), has been linked with similar health problems and is banned in Canada, the US, Finland, Norway, Japan and Sweden. In 2004 research for the Journal of Developmental and Behavioural Paediatrics found that eliminating artificial colourings such as these from hyperactive children's diets results in a third of the benefit than you would expect to see from ADHD medications like Ritalin.

Many fizzy drinks and snacks contain aspartame (E951), a sweetener associated with two diametrically opposed camps - the food industry, whose research suggests it's safe, and campaigners who say it can be linked with various health problems. The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) recently reviewed it and pronounced it safe.

Acesulfame K (E950) is another sweetener: a study by the American Centre for Science in the Public Interest suggesting carcinogenic effects was found to be flawed by the US Food and Drug Administration. EFSA has approved it for use.

Sodium benzoate (E211) is a preservative. A double blind placebo-controlled 2004 study suggested that sodium benzoate in conjunction with food colourings has effects on children's behaviour.

Carrageenan (E407) is a thickener which has been ruled as safe by the EU, but some campaigners still say it is associated with gastro-intestinal discomfort in some individuals.

The meal

Blue buns and Bob the Builder sprinkles

Buns: red colouring from anthocyanins, disodium diphosphate, allura red. Bob the Builder sprinkles: quinoline yellow, sunset yellow and indigo carmine.

Dora Cake Kit

Lactic acid esters of mono- and diglycerides of fatty acids (E472b), 12g of sugar per cake, partially hydrogenated vegetable oil, brilliant blue, carbon black (E153), indigo carmine, allura red (E129), quinoline yellow, patent blue (E131), sunset yellow (E110).

Prawn cocktail flavour crisps

Sweeteners: sugar, dextrose, aspartame and saccharin. There's also MSG, and more potassium chloride as well as another flavour enhancer called disodium 5'-ribonucleotide.

Chocolate flavour mini rolls

The anti-fungal potassium sorbate and emulsifiers, disodium dihydrogen diphosphate, one of a group of phosphates (which are often called mineral salts, lecithin, or thickeners). 3g of fat per roll too.


Sodium benzoate (E211), quinoline yellow, carmoisine, cochineal, 3 per cent orange juice, 65g of sugar per bottle.

Dairylea Lunchables

('Formed ham') Sodium acetate, MSG, potassium chloride, sodium nitrite, dextrose, sodium phosphate, sulphur dioxide, glucose syrup, ammonium hydrogen carbonate, cochineal, sugar, anti-fungal potassium sorbate. A total of 27g of sugar per meal.

Processed cheese logs

A blend of sodium citrate, sodium phosphates and sodium polyphosphates.

Herta Frankfurters

Pork fat, carmine/cochineal, sodium erythorbate (to keep meat pink), sodium nitrite, 2g of salt per 100g.

Nesquik Magic Straws

More aspartame and acesulfame K, more cochineal red, sugar and edible starches - making up 132 calories per straw and 15g of sugar.

Strawberry Flavour Yazoo

Carrageenan (E407), ponceau 4R and mono- and diglycerides of fatty acids (E471). Because it is labelled 'flavour', not 'flavoured' it need not contain nor have ever been near a real strawberry.

Fruit Winders

'Made from fruit' but just 23 per cent; the rest is maltodextrin, hydrogenated vegetable oil, emulsifiers, sodium citrate, ascorbic acid and malic acid. Only 0.3g of fibre per roll.

Yoplait Petits Filous Frubes

Anti-fungal potassium sorbate, calcium phosphate, only 5.8 per cent fruit purée, and sugar is the second ingredient by volume with glucose-fructose syrup as fourth.

Pasta shapes

Sugar, modified maize starch, glucose-fructose syrup, ascorbic acid.

Sour sweets

Malic acid (E296), quinoline yellow (E104), sunset yellow (E110), ponceau 4R (E124 or cochineal), indigo carmine (E132), green S (E142), and almost 60g of sugar (as glucose syrup, dextrose, sugar and caramelised syrup) per 100g.