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It is more than 30 years since an American scientist, Ben Feingold, first suggested that artificial food colors and other additives caused overactive, impulsive and inattentive behavior in children; this sort of hyperactivity is known to be a marker for later educational difficulties, especially problems with reading, and antisocial behavior.
it provided a clear demonstration that changes in behavior could be detected in three-year-old and eight-year-old children who consumed a mix of additives.
Since Feingold’s original work, behavioral problems among schoolchildren have risen, as have diagnoses of attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder. Estimates of numbers of children suffering from full ADHD vary: one UK survey estimates that 2.5% of British schoolchildren are affected, and international studies put the figure at 5-10%.
The UK Government’ Food Standards Agency (FSA), which commissioned the study, was taking a cautious line yesterday. Professor Ieuan Hughes, the chairman of its expert committee on the toxicity of chemicals in food (CoT), said that since some children in the study reacted significantly to the additives but others did not.
The FSA revised its official advice, but only to suggest that parents who think their children show signs of hyperactive behavior should avoid foods containing artificial colors and the preservative sodium benzoate by checking labels.
many of the products which contain these additives - sweets, cakes, ice cream and drinks - are sold without labels.
The FSA has also not issued advice to schools on whether the additives should be banned from school food but advised concerned parents to ask head teachers.
Head teachers who have worked to remove additives from school meals said the research vindicated their efforts. Alan Coode, former head of a primary school in Merton, said: “We knew this all along. When we changed our school meals and removed additives there was a new calmness to the school. The science has just caught up.”
The FSA has been considering the safety of these additives since 2000.
The food industry said it was already removing many artificial colorings. It argues that avoiding sodium benzoate is more difficult because it stops drinks that may have a shelf life of several years going off. The preservative is still very widely used, particularly by soft drinks manufacturers.
The global additives market is worth more than $25bn (£12.4bn) a year. It grew by 2.4% a year between 2001 and 2004, when the food industry says it was transforming itself, and is growing rapidly.