Thursday, 6 September 2007

I Like the Red Ones Best

Today the results of an authoritative study into links between food colourings and hyperactive behaviour in children is published in the Lancet. It confirms what parents have known perfectly well for years; when one of their children begins to behave unusually maniacally or exuberantly, they think, 'What has he/she eaten?'. And invariably pin the abberant behaviour down to something consumed in the previous few hours - wine gums, soft drinks or whatever. (Incidentally, some parents would go beyond the current research and argue that it is not just 3 year olds, or 7 year olds, that are vulnerable. The effect can still be detected at 17 and may well apply to adults, though perhaps in a less overt form).

But hang on a minute. Getting a touch of déjà vu? In October 2002 a UK government-funded study by the Asthma & Allergy Research Centre found that food colourings could cause behaviour changes in toddlers, and lead to conduct disorder and educational difficulties. In 2004, in research funded by the Food Standards Agency, the team that completed the current study published findings which drew similar conclusions about the adverse effects of food colourings. Just how much evidence is needed to push government into banning the use of these cocktails of coal-tar derivatives - which have no nutritional or gastronomic value but are purely cosmetic? Whatever happened to the precautionary principle?

In 1956 Doll and Hill published a report that established a strong probability of a link between smoking and lung cancer. At that time tobacco duty funded about half the cost of the NHS, and it was not until six years later that the Royal College was prepared to unequivocally concede the link. Fiscal interest creates a powerful inertia.

Let's hope the Food Standards Agency and the European Commission will finally now act to ban the use of the implicated colourings - preferably in all foods, not just those targeted at children.

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