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Southampton response to EFSA evaluation of study on food additives and children's behaviour

Published: 
14 March 2008

A European Food Standards Authority (EFSA) Panel has today announced the results of its assessment of the Southampton study of food additives and children's behaviour published in the Lancet in September 2007.

The Southampton research team members (Jim Stevenson, Donna McCann, Edmund Sonuga-Barke and John Warner) are pleased that this scrutiny of their work, which included an independent re-analysis of the data, supports their conclusion that the mixtures of additives had a measurable effect on the activity and attention of some children. They agree that the average effects for children as a whole are small, but there is considerable variation with some children responding more and others less.

The Panel recognised that the Southampton study was both the largest of its kind and one of the few to be based on children from the general population.

The EFSA Panel concluded that the results of the study could not be used as a basis for changing the recommended levels (Acceptable Daily Intake) for the food colours or the sodium benzoate preservative. Such a recommendation should not be based on the findings of this study alone, say the Southampton researchers. Whilst this study cannot determine whether the effects are produced by the food colours or by the preservative, the Southampton researchers add that it is striking that the effects of additives on behaviour in their study were similar to those reported previously for food colours on children with more extreme levels of hyperactivity.

The EFSA Panel describes these effects as small and their significance for children's development and education uncertain. It is the view of the Southampton research team that since the colours being tested in this study are of no nutritional value, even the small overall benefit of removing them from children's diets would come at no cost or risk to the child. Under these circumstances a benefit, even a small one, would be worthwhile achieving.

Added weight is given to this conclusion, they say, because other important influences on hyperactivity in children, such as genetic factors, are difficult to address while the risk arising from exposure to food colours can be regulated.

The EFSA Panel identified a number of uncertainties that remain in relation to the effects of additives on behaviour. These clearly indicate the need for further research on this important question which is of concern to many parents.

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