Since the 1970s scientists have debated whether there is link between the use of certain artificial food colourings and hyperactivity in children.

Whilst hyperactivity is associated with a number of different social and genetic causes, research has suggested that some artificial colours could produce or increase hyperactive symptoms. Eliminating some food colouring from children’s diets may therefore have a positive effect on their behaviour.

What have researchers discovered?

In the last 50 years alone, the daily consumption of artificial food colourings has quadrupled. This has increased the pressure on public health bodies to determine whether some colourings could have a negative effect on our wellbeing.

Although scientific research has so far produced mixed results, several studies have indicated that while the research may be inconclusive, the finding are too substantial to ignore.

One 2012 study, which reviewed the current body of research, concluded that artificial food colourings may have a harmful effect on children, and so exposure to these chemicals should be minimised until their safety can be confirmed.

Which food colourings are under suspicion?

Landmark research conducted in 2004 and 2007 by the Southampton University indicated that eating or drinking products that contain mixes of certain artificial food colours and the preservative sodium benzoate could increased hyperactivity in some children, and not just those who have existing symptoms of ADHD.

This lead the Food Standards Agency (FSA) to issue a recommendation that manufacturers should voluntarily “phase out” six specific food colourings.

The artificial colours are:

  • sunset yellow FCF (E110)
  • quinoline yellow (E104)
  • carmoisine (E122)
  • allura red (E129)
  • tartrazine (E102)
  • ponceau 4R (E124)

This does not mean that all other artificial food colourings have been deemed completely safe, just that there is no evidence to indicate either way. It is also possible that the artificial preservatives used alongside food colourings may be the real culprit behind any potential changes in children’s behaviour; we simply don’t have any answers to these questions yet.

Have these food colourings been banned?

It is important to remember that these colourings have not been banned from the UK and may still legally be used in food products. The FSA has only asked manufacturers to consider using other natural alternatives in the foods and drinks they produce while research is ongoing.

However, all countries in the European Union are required to put a warning on food and drink that contains any of the six colours and must be labelled ‘may have an adverse effect on activity and attention in children’.

Which foods are free from the six colours?

Parents who are concerned about the presence of these six colours in their child’s food are advised to check packaging, particularly those of products that have a long-shelf life.

The FSA has also publicised a list of retailers and restaurants that have already stopped using the six artificial colours in their products.

Retailers free from the six colours

colourings and hyperactivity in children

Brands and restaurants free from the six colours

colourings and hyperactivity in children

(Source: FSA)