(Editor's Note: Since we first posted this blog, the FDA has decided to review the science behind claims that artificial food coloring and hyperactivity in children are linked. This debate has gone on for some 30 years. WellWise will keep you posted on the outcome.)
Is artificial food coloring bad for children?
Why are people concerned over our intake of food additives such as colors (or e-numbers, as they are called in Europe)? Mostly due to misinformation and a few scare stories by uneducated media looking to create headlines, the dangers of food additives have almost become an urban legend.
The truth is, the air we breathe to sustain life is 99.9 percent e-numbers. We also need some e-numbers in our foods because of our modern-day lifestyle based on convenience and the associated widespread use of prepared foods. Without certain preservatives, such foods could soon become rancid (i.e. meat and pastry) and harmful in their own right. Similarly, other e-numbers, such as carotene and vitamin C, are beneficial and even vital for our long-term health.
Ninety percent or more of e-numbers are not harmful and, indeed, help us keep food fresh and safe for both adults and children. However, we have some concerns over some e-numbers that may act as xenoestrogens, and with more recent concerns linking them to obesity, this is likely to re-heat the e-numbers debate.
But here are some important facts: A research study by the European Commissions Scientific Committee on food found that only 0.01-0.023 percent of people are intolerant to additives.2
In a study conducted in the late 1980s, 30,000 people were tested for their reactions to additives.3 Seven percent (or 900) of this group believed they had adverse reactions to additives. However, following testing, only three people had any measurable reaction.
Food coloring and hyperactivity
Despite the low number of people who might suffer reactions to certain additives, there are some additives that may be a cause for concern. Although e-numbers are checked in relation to their safe consumption, they are only tested on a small number of subjects. Once the additives are placed in foods and released to the wider population, then it gives us a real picture of adverse reactions.
Since 2004, a debate has been raging over the effect of e-numbers on children’s behavior, specifically about hyperactivity.
In 2004, we had a research trial looking at four e-numbers (colors and sodium benzoate) in three-year-old children on the Isle of Wight.4 After a baseline assessment, children were given a diet eliminating artificial colorings and benzoate preservatives for one week. Then for three weeks they received, in random order, a drink containing artificial colorings (20 mg daily) and sodium benzoate (45 mg daily) (active period), or a placebo mixture, supplementary to their diet.
Then a tester, who knew nothing of the children’s dietary status, assessed their behavior. The children’s parents also rated the behavior. By both measures the children demonstrated significant reductions in hyperactive behavior during the withdrawal phase. Furthermore, there were significantly greater increases in hyperactive behavior during the active period than in the placebo period, based on parental reports. This demonstrated a general adverse effect of artificial food coloring and benzoate preservatives on the behavior of these children, especially detectable by parents, but not by simple clinical assessment, using a skin-prick test to assess allergic reaction to the additives.
This trial was the precursor to what became one of the media headliners over e-numbers, or food additives. The study was known as the “Southampton 6 study.” In 2007, the same research group as in the 2004 Isle of Wight trial published a research paper in the prestigious journal, the Lancet.5 The study concluded that exposure to two mixtures of four artificial colors, plus the preservative sodium benzoate in the diet, resulted in increased hyperactivity in three-year-old and eight-to-nine-year-old children in the general population. Such colors are typically present in many sweets, cereals and soft drinks, and this led to great consumer concern for child health.
However, an assessment by the AFC found that the Southampton study provided limited evidence that the two different mixtures of synthetic colors and sodium benzoate were not statistically different when they re-analysed the data using more robust mathematical techniques. In simple terms, this means that the AFC believes that the study was flawed in its method of analyzing the results and that there was not an effect on behaviors when using such colors in the diet. As such the safe intake levels would not be adjusted.
Should we be concerned about xenoestrogens?
There are chemicals that, if their presence is too high, act like the hormone estrogen, which in men can reduce sperm count and in women may increase the risk of breast cancer. These are called xenoestrogens. My personal belief is that some e-numbers are acting as xenoestrogens.
In 2009, researchers from Italy analysed a database of 1500 food additives and found two new xenoestrogens (propyl gallate/E310 and 4-hexyreorcinol/E-586).6 E310 is used as a preservative in foods to stop fats and oils from becoming rancid, and E-586 helps shrimp and other shellfish from losing their natural color. Of the two e-numbers of concern, E310 is the one posing the biggest worry, as it is widely used in foods and as such the cumulative intake could be the greatest.
One thing this all points to: the food industry needs to become more active in educating the general public about additives. Not doing so potentiates many of the myths surrounding their inclusion in foods and our health.
1. Evans G, et al. Consumers' ratings of the natural and unnatural qualities of foods. Appetite. 2010 Mar 1. [Epub ahead of print]
2. Commission of the European Communities Reports of the Scientific Committee for Food (Twelfth Series). Report of the Scientific Committee for food on the sensitivity of individuals to food components and food additives. Brussels, Commission of the European Communities, 1981. (EUR 7823).
3. Medical Aspects of food intolerance: a group of research papers sponsored by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. Journal of the Royal College of Physicians, 1987, 21, N°4.
4.Bateman B, et al. The effects of a double blind, placebo controlled, artificial food colourings and benzoate preservative challenge on hyperactivity in a general population sample of preschool children. Arch Dis Child. 2004;89(6):506-11.
5. McCann D, et al.Food additives and hyperactive behaviour in 3-year-old and 8/9-year-old children in the community: a randomised, double-blinded, placebo-controlled trial. Lancet. 2007 3;370(9598):1560-7.
6. Amadasi A, et al. Identification of xenoestrogens in food additives by an integrated in silico and in vitro approach. Chem Res Toxicol. 2009;22(1):52-63.
7. Hatch EE, et al. Association of endocrine disruptors and obesity: perspectives from epidemiological studies. Int J Androl. 2010;33(2):324-32.