Many parents may be feeling anxious this week in the wake of alarmist media reports and lobbyists’ statements about the impact of food additives on children’s health.

A lobby group calling itself the Kids First Campaign has been putting public pressure on the food regulatory agency, Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ), to phase out and eventually ban certain food additives.

The campaign is citing a UK experiment, published last year in The Lancet, which showed that there was a small but detectable increase in hyperactivity in young children who consumed artificial colours or a sodium benzoate preservative.

However, as I and a colleague have made clear in a letter to the organisers of the Kids First Campaign, we believe they are misrepresenting both the Southampton study’s findings, as well as the response of overseas regulatory bodies.

The group’s recommendations to FSANZ are extreme and cannot be justified on the basis of current research evidence or clinical experience.

The group is implying that all children are potentially at risk of behavioural side effects from the preservatives. However, this is not the case. In the Southampton study, only some children were affected.

Furthermore, among those children who were affected, the magnitude of the effect was small, and there was nothing to indicate that the changes observed were detrimental to schoolwork or other aspects of intellectual functioning.

Notably, the group’s campaign makes no mention of an extensive review of the Southampton study conducted by a Scientific Panel of European Food Safety Authority.

This review concluded:

In the context of the overall weight of evidence and in view of the considerable uncertainties, such as the lack of consistency and relative weakness of the effect and the absence of information on the clinical significance of the behavioural changes observed … the findings … cannot be used as a basis for altering the acceptable daily intake of the respective food colours or sodium benzoate.

Nor do the group acknowledge that the European Food Safety Authority has concluded that the study provides no basis for banning food colourings.

The effects of food colours are dose-dependent, and a voluntary reduction in the concentration of additives used by manufacturers may achieve the same outcome as a ban mandated by regulation.

Moreover, colours are not the only common food substances that can cause behavioural reactions in susceptible children. A narrow focus on colours overlooks the broader range of additives and naturally occurring dietary substances that may need to be considered on an individual basis in children with ADHD.

It is important to recognise that food intolerances are idiosyncratic in relation to which individuals are susceptible, which substances are involved in each person, and what symptoms are provoked by the relevant substances.

We believe that the best approach is to identify children with clinically significant behavioural or other problems that may be due to food intolerances, and to provide them with individual testing and dietary management advice based on an understanding of the broad range of food substances that could potentially be involved.

There is a shortage of appropriately trained health care professionals who can provide assessment and dietary advice for such children.

If the Kids First Campaign really wants to help children, their efforts would be better directed towards lobbying for additional resources in this area.

Peter Fray

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