Anyone who has ever witnessed the fall-out of a children’s birthday party will know the havoc food additives can wreak. However, those brightly coloured sweets and tasty sausage rolls might cause more harm than hyperactivity.
We look at the controversy surrounding additives and ask how safe is your food?
What are additives?
Additives (both natural and artificial) are added to food and drink for different purposes: to colour, sweeten, enhance the flavour, preserve, stabilise (for consistency), and emulsify (to keep food smooth!). Natural additives include salt, vinegar and sugar, while others – such as the sweetener saccharine – are made in a laboratory. The use of additives in food in Europe is controlled by law; currently there are over 297 E numbers (additives) that have been approved.
“Evidence is strong enough for European law to
ban the inclusion of these additives in food and drink.”
Food researcher Professor Jim Stevenson
For a while now, additives such as artificial colourings, preservatives and flavours have been getting bad press: so much so that some companies have declared a ban on the use of them in some of their most popular food and drink.
However, artificial additives are still used in certain items. This is causing concern for both parents and for campaign groups such as The Children’s Food Campaign, the latter of which recently accused the Food Standards Agency for ‘chickening out’ of taking tough action on additives.
This was following food researcher Professor Jim Stevenson’s study into additives and his subsequent advice to the FSA that certain additives used in thousands of cakes, sweets and processed foods ‘damage the psychological health of children’.
47% of babyworld members preferred clearer food
labelling rather than an outright ban
Professor Stevenson’s research, conducted at Southampton University, revealed that children became hyperactive after eating or drinking items containing artificial colourings and preservatives. He is adamant that his evidence is strong enough for European law to ban the inclusion of these additives in food and drink.
Currently, the FSA states that it is up to manufacturers to remove additives from their products. However, it has also advised parents who are concerned that certain artificial colourings, flavourings and preservatives are causing hyperactivity in their children to remove them from their diet.
They are planning to improve their advice to parents soon on how to do this.
It’s all very well advising parents to avoid products containing additives but unless you have a degree in food science or chemistry, knowing which ones to steer clear of can be a nightmare.
Bill Statham’s recently published What’s Really in Your Basket? contains comprehensive lists of all additives and rates them as ‘safe and beneficial’; ‘safe for most people’; ‘caution advised’; ‘best avoided’; and ‘hazardous’.
Here are some of the most widely used, and potentially harmful ones,
that you will find in products aimed at children:
|Additive||What it is||What it’s used in||What it can cause|
|tartrazine (E102||A yellow food colouring, already banned in some countries, including|
Norway and Austria.
|Sweets, sweetcorn, cheese crackers, soft drinks, mint sauce,|
cordials, pickles, brown sauce, jams, cereals.
|Breathing difficulties, skin reactions, headaches, trouble|
concentrating, behavioural problems, sleeping difficulties.One of the worst additives for side effects.
|ponceau 4R (E124) (Cochineal Red)||Bright red food colouring, banned in some countries, including|
Norway and the US.
|Trifle mixes, jellies, jams, cake mixes, dessert toppings, tomato|
|Asthma, hay fever. Can cause problems for people who are sensitive|
to aspirin. Carcinogenic to animals.
|sunset yellow (E110)||Orange/yellow food colouring, banned in some countries, including|
Norway and Finland.
|Fruit cordials, packet soups, cereals, sweets, tinned fish,|
drink powders, sweets.
|Breathing problems, skin reactions, abdominal pain, hyperactivity.|
|carmoisine (E122)||Red food dye, banned in some countries including Japan, Sweden|
and the US.
|Blancmange, swiss roll, jams, sweets, brown sauce, yoghurts,|
packet soups, breadcrumbs, cheesecake mixes.
|Allergic/intolerance reactions, behavioural problems.|
|quinoline||A synthetic coal tar dye, with a dull yellow/green colour. Banned|
in Australia, Japan, Norway and the US.
|Drinks, processed foods, lipsticks, hair products, soaps, colognes|
and in some medicines.
|allura red AC (E129)||Orange/red dye, banned in some countries including France, Germany|
|Cake mixes, trifle mixes, jellies, cereals, chocolate biscuits,|
cosmetics, lipsticks and medications.
|Breathing problems, skin reactions, hyperactivity, connected|
with cancer in mice and adverse reproductive effects in animals.
|sodium benzoate (E211)||A preservative.||Soft drinks, fruit juices, jams, pickles, baked goods and tomato|
paste, toothpaste, eye cream.
|Breathing problems, skin reactions, hyperactivity, adverse effects|
in people allergic to aspirin.
|saccharin (E954)||Artificial sweetener, banned in many countries.||Sugar substitute – diet soft drinks.||Skin reactions, nausea, diarrhoea, headaches, possible carcinogen.|
|Aspartame (E951)||Artificial sweetener / flavour enhancer||Used in low-calorie foods, diet drinks, soft drinks, children’s|
medications: anything that is sugar-free could contain this.
|Headaches, anxiety, asthma, hyperactivity, aggression, dizzinesss.|
|monosodium glutamate – MSG (E621)||Flavour enhancer||Packet soups, flavoured noodles, soy sauce, some Chinese food,|
gelatine, soups, ‘meat’ flavourings (eg in stock)
|Palpitations, abdominal pain, nausea, migraine, asthma.|
No, they’re not; most are safe to consume but there has been controversy over the ones listed above, amongst others.
A simple web search on food additives will usually bring up examples of additives that cause concern. And it’s worth remembering that even natural additives are given E numbers – such as E101 (aka riboflavin or vitamin B2, added to cereals) so don’t let this letter of the alphabet
alarm you unnecessarily!
To date, the Food Standards Agency has refused to recommend an outright ban on additives that are known to cause side effects – physical or otherwise – in children. Instead they advise parents to carefully look at labels and avoid products containing artificial flavourings,
preservatives or colours if reactions are suspected.
The FSA’s Dr Clare Boynton told The Times : ‘It is for a parent to know what foods their children are susceptible to and whether their children react to specific types of food.’
Babyworld members tended to agree with this. In a recent poll, 47% preferred clearer labelling rather than an outright ban, favoured by 35%. However, Professor Stevenson told the Daily Mail that ’We know that hyperactivity in a young child is a risk factor for, for example, later difficulties in school. Certainly it is associated with difficulties in learning to read.
It is also associated with wider behavioural difficulties in middle childhood, such as conduct disorder. I feel that the effects we are seeing here are sufficiently great to represent a threat to health.”
Where to next?
- For full advice, visit the Food Standard Agency’s website.