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Food Safety Focus (48th Issue, July 2010) – Incident in Focus

Food Colours and Hyperactivity in Children

Reported by Ms. Janny MA, Scientific Officer
Risk Assessment Section
Centre for Food Safety

Some children's favourite: colourful sweets

From 20 July 2010, foods to be sold in member countries of the European Union are required to put up a warning statement "may have an adverse effect on activity and attention in children" if they contain certain artificial food colours. This article provides the background information that leads to the decision and also discusses the local views.

The Southampton study

Since the 70s, a number of studies have been conducted on the effect of artificial food colours on hyperactivity in children. A study published in 2007 by researchers from Southampton University in the UK received much attention.

In the Southampton study, a group of three-year-old children and a group aged eight to nine years old were given drinks containing mixture of artificial colours at different doses. These colours are commonly used in various foods including children's favourites e.g., confectioneries and soft drinks. Based on the changes on activity and attention of these children, the researchers concluded that exposure to food colour mixtures in the diet result in increased hyperactivity in children.

Table 1. Artificial food colours which may link to hyperactivity in children as suggested by the Southampton study

Name International Numbering System for Food Additives (INS) No. Colour
Allura red AC 129 Red
Carmoisine 122 Red
Ponceau 4R 124 Red
Quinoline yellow 104 Yellow
Sunset yellow FCF 110 Yellow
Tartrazine 102 Yellow

Implications of the Study

Like many countries, all food colours studied are permitted for use in food locally. The CFS asked the Expert Committee on Food Safety (Expert Committee) for their advice on this study .

The Expert Committee, while agreed that the matter deserved close observation, observed a number of inherent limitations in the study and scientific uncertainties such that a causal link between food colours and behavioural changes in children could not be established. To this end, the current regulatory control in terms of risk management is considered appropriate yet it is prudent to provide advice to the public for making informed food choices, especially for their children.

The Expert Committee ' s views concurred with those of many overseas food authorities. Some authorities e.g. Food Standards Australia New Zealand and U.S. Food and Drug Administration remark simply taking these additives out of a child ' s diet may not eliminate these symptoms and thus have no plan to take any actions. Nevertheless, some authorities, such as the European Union as cited in the beginning of the article, decided to take precautionary measures. The UK is also promoting the voluntary phase out of these colours by the industry.

Food Colours

Food colours are often put into food to add or restore its colour for a number of reasons. For instance, food colours can compensate colour loss during food processing, correct natural colour variations, improve naturally occurring colours and provide certain desirable colour. In other words, food colours make food more attractive and appetising; without them you may find lemon soda not yellow, strawberry ice-cream not pink and candies not colourful.

Artificial colours are preferred by some food manufacturers over natural ones for their stability across a wide range of conditions and lower cost.

What Is Hyperactivity?

Hyperactivity is a behavioural style characterised by over-activity, inattention and impulsivity. There is a wide spectrum of activity level, from appearing to be approximately normal to extreme hyperactivity. The extreme case may meet the diagnostic criteria for attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

ADHD typically has onset in early childhood and is characterised by a specific pattern of behaviour such that it affects the child's ability to learn and function at home and at school. Hyperactivity in children is multi-factorial, including both genetic and environmental factors.

How Can You Know if a Food Contains Food Colours?

According to the requirements under the Food and Drugs (Composition and Labelling) Regulations, if an additive, including food colour, is used in a prepackaged food, its name or identification number together with its functional class e.g., colour should be labelled in the ingredient list . Consumers can always identify the food additives labelled with its identification number by making reference to the Consumer Guide to Food Additives published by the CFS.

Key Points to Note:

  1. Experts opined that the Southampton study had a number of limitations and uncertainties, in which a link between food colours and behavioural changes in children could not be established.
  2. Parents can make reference to the ingredient list to make informed food choice for their children.

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