A small number of children can be affected by some food additives, but the reaction in the media has been out of all proportion to the real dangers.
Rob Lyons argues that while it is quite possible that a small number of children can be affected by some food additives, the reaction in the media has been out of all proportion to the real dangers.
A study commissioned by the UK Food Standards Agency and published last week in the medical journal The Lancet suggests that there is, as many have suspected, some connection between food additives and behavioural problems in children.
The study, conducted by researchers at Southampton University, tested additives on two groups of children: one aged between three and four years old, and another aged between eight and nine years old. The two age groups were divided into three study groups: one group drank a placebo mixture of fruit juices; test group A drank fruit juices which contained a mixture of artificial colours (sunset yellow, carmoisine, tartrazine, and ponceau 4R) plus the preservative sodium benzoate; test group B drank their juice with a different mixture of artificial colours (sunset yellow, carmoisine, quinoline yellow, and allura red AC), also in combination with sodium benzoate. The children’s behaviour was then recorded both before and after they drank the different mixtures.
Compared to the placebo group, the behaviour of children in both younger and older children was noticeably affected after drinking mix A. The children drinking mix B also seemed to be affected, but this effect did not reach statistical significance in the younger group.
What can we conclude from this study? The association of behavioural problems, particularly with mix A, may be significant statistically, but it doesn’t mean that our children are bouncing off the walls at the first whiff of cheap cordial or boiled sweets. According to Nigel Hawkes, writing in The Times (London): ‘The size of the effect, roughly, was an increase in hyperactivity that represented less than a tenth of that seen in children diagnosed with ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder).’ Such children will misbehave more than usual, but they will hardly be uncontrollable. And the fact that additives are associated with changed behaviour doesn’t necessarily mean that additives actually cause that changed behaviour – there may be other processes at work which are not apparent in this study.
Secondly, the study makes clear that it was mix B that was used to reflect real average intakes – yet that was the mixture which had a weaker association with negative behaviours. That doesn’t mean that there was no effect, but if there was an effect, it was too small to rule out the possibility that it might be down to chance. In any event, the effect was strong in a small number of children while others were unaffected. (Some parents noted increased behavioural problems in the children who had been consuming the placebo, suggesting that to some extent this misbehaviour is in the eye of the beholder.)
As studies go, this was well-designed and appears to have been conducted to a high standard. But it only shows that a particular mixture of additives may have a small effect on children. Which additives were actually causing this effect can’t be gleaned from this study; that would require further work to isolate the effect of each additive.
What the study definitely does not tell us is that all food additives are dangerous. Yet that did not stop the press from going overboard in its reaction, with thousands of column inches devoted to handwringing about our children’s diets. Parents are apparently clamouring to be told which additives to look out for on labels. Already, food giants Cadbury and Mars are looking to phase out artificial colours. One casualty of the concern with additives is the blue Smartie: apparently, the makers, Nestlé, couldn’t find a suitable natural alternative to make a blue sweet so it dropped them from their packets.
What is really being called into question is conventional mass food production. The Organic Trade Group, a consortium of retailers, lobby groups and manufacturers including Waitrose and the Soil Association, has expressed disappointment that the Food Standards Agency has not seen fit to ban most food additives: ‘The conventional food industry often acts in ways that make the public feel uneasy. As our government and regulators do not appear to be able, or have the will, to protect us and our children from the consequences of poor quality food, the choice to buy organic is a leading solution to the problem.’
As if often the case, campaigners for organic food prefer to use innuendo to promote their ideas, rather than accepting that the latest study shows that the effects of additives on most people are not that great. Weird and wonderful reactions to various chemicals in food are not uncommon – and most of them relate to chemicals that occur naturally. For example, the private healthcare provider BUPA notes: ‘In adults, the most common food allergies are to peanuts, tree nuts (such as walnuts and hazelnuts), fish and shellfish. Foods which commonly trigger allergies in children include cows’ milk, eggs, peanuts, soya, wheat, tree nuts, fish and shellfish.’ While artificial colours may produce behavioural problems, reactions to many natural products can produce quite unpleasant symptoms and may even be life-threatening.
If a child has persistent behavioural problems, it may be worth parents looking at whether artificial colours are having some effect. However, all children misbehave to some degree and there is a normal range of behaviour from mild-mannered to persistently stroppy that isn’t going to be resolved by mums and dads scanning the label of every product in the shopping trolley.
Rob Lyons is deputy editor of spiked.
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