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The University of Southampton

Food additives and behaviour in children

Research by psychologists at the University of Southampton into the effect of food additives on children's behaviour has led to major UK and European changes in food processing and labelling.

Research challenge

For decades the link between food additives and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) in children has been the focus of debate. It was believed that some food additives could cause adverse behavioural reactions in children. Research into food additives was carried out but none of the findings was considered conclusive enough to lead to the removal of these additives from food.


Based on previous research, the UK Food Standards Agency (FSA) funded a £1m study at the University of Southampton to investigate whether artificial food additives could cause hyperactivity in children.

Our solution

Researchers in psychology, in collaboration with a professor in child health, developed a rigorously designed trial that studied 300 children aged three or eight and the effect on them of colourings and additives. Their findings, published in the Lancet, revealed a significant increase in ADHD-type behaviour, including impulsive behaviour and loss of concentration, in children in both age groups. The researchers estimated that 6.6 per cent of children in the UK aged three to 12 suffer from ADHD and that figure could be reduced by 30 per cent if additives were banned.

What was the impact?

The results of Southampton's research has led to the FSA recommending that six artificial colourings ‘The Southampton Six' are removed from food. The additives Tartrazine (E102), Ponceau 4R (E124), Sunset Yellow (E110), Camoisine (E122), Quinoline Yellow (E104) and Allura Red (E129) were previously commonly found in sweets, biscuits and soft drinks.

Recently released FSA figures show that 10 leading restaurant chains including McDonald's and Pizza Hut, 90 food manufacturers including Heinz and Northern Foods, and 15 food retailers including Tesco and Sainsbury's are free from these six food additives.

The research has also led to the European Parliament requiring clear labelling on food and drink to indicate the use of these colourings and warnings about their effects on attention and behaviour in children. 

Food additives

The results of Southampton’s research has led to the FSA recommending that six artificial colourings ‘The Southampton Six' are removed from food.

Edmund Sonuga-Barke - Professor in Psychology, Developmental Psychopathology

For the UK government's response to this research - i.e. recommendations to eliminate the six additives in the original study - see Food Standards Agency webpage 13 Nov 2008:

Following the UK government's decision there were calls for the same additives to be phased out across the EU.

The EU Parliament  responded positively to these calls:

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