To what extent do artificial colourings in food affect behaviour? Could this impact be reduced?

We, as humans have always used additives in our food. Even from the beginning of time Neanderthals were using bugs and berries to enhance the colour and flavour of their food. In 1852 the first artificial colour was discovered by William Henry Perkin. This was the colour mauve, it was an organic dye, which was used for dying many different materials, but at this time it was not thought of to use it to colour food. After this, other dyes started to be discovered and people began using them to colour food throughout the world. Although there were many different colourings, which produced a variety of vivid colours, people were soon realising that they were not all safe as safe as they thought. Take for example copper sulphate, ‘In 1920, Frederick Accum mentioned the fate of a woman who habitually ate pickles colored green with copper sulphate while at her hairdressers’s and later became ill and died.’ [1] This was one of many incidents in the 1900’s which led to the thorough investigation of many different colourings in order to discover which of them were harmful to the human population and following this ‘The Colours in Food Act- 1995’[2] was enforced in the UK from 1st January 1996. The act contains a strict list of permitted colours and foods that must only have specific or no colourings added to them. There were also many other harmful substances that were being used as artificial food colourings before the 20th century. For example, many lead and arsenic compounds were being used in many different foods, especially in children’s confectionary to make it bright and eye catching, therefore increasing sales. Although these colourings showed no signs of having a significant effect on the behaviour of children, they did have much more dangerous effects on the worlds health. These effects included lead poisoning from the multiple lead and arsenic compounds that were all found in food, which could and would in most cases ultimately lead to death, especially with the expensive but poor health care that was available. Now, it is obvious to anyone as to why these colourings are no longer being used anywhere in the world, but what about all the commotion about blue Smarties in 2006. The blue food colouring wasn’t causing any deaths, so why was it removed, leaving dull, white Smarties and when a substitue was found, pale blue Smarties? The answer is simply because it was thought that the artificial blue colour was resulting in hyperactivity in children. But, there are still many products available on the market that are aimed at and mainly consumed by children that contain large amounts of this blue colouring, such as blue jelly sweets and big, bright multi-coloured lolly pops. None of which show any signs of not containing any artificial colourings.

For many years, many people have believed that artificial colours and flavourings have a negative effect on behaviour, particularly for children.

When looking at the results of the survey we can see that almost 80% of the sample believed that artificial food colourings did have an effect on behaviour. We can also see examples of the public’s beliefs by doing a quick Internet search. Take for example a simple Google search for ‘Artificial colours and behaviour’, we see over 5.5 million results concerning the topic, with many of the resulting links being blogs and forums written by anxious parents, especially concerned mothers asking for and expressing their views and opinions regarding the effects of artificial colourings on their children’s behaviour. Other results highlighting the many different organisations that offer help and advice for these concerned parents, with suggestions to reduce the amount of artificial colourings their families consume on a daily basis. One possible reason for the public’s views could be because media has, at times, largely focused on the issue with regards to resulting behavioural problems, potentially making it seem more serious than it is, but there is also the possibility that artificial colours are in fact having a large effect on children’s behaviour and that we may be better off without them in our diets.

Over the years there have been many scientific research projects that were aiming to assess the effects that artificial food colourings have on children’s behaviour, many of which have been funded by the government. This could, perhaps be a hint at the severity of the situation, especially if we assume that the government would only fund research if it were believed to be beneficial to the public’s health or of high priority. There have been several detailed studies all with a common aim, to identify the relationships between artificial food colourings and behaviour. In particular, relating to attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and hyperactivity in children.

The following studies all have results regarding the effects of artificial food colourings on children’s behaviour and learning abilities. They all use trials with and without placebos to allow for comparative results between the children’s behaviour when they have consumed artificial food dyes and when they have not. Some also compare the effects that artificial food dyes have on children with ADHD or hyperactivity compared to those who do not.

Study 1[3] is a study that examined the effects of artificial colourings and preservatives on the behaviour of children. This study was one of many of this nature and was in fact repeated a few years after the original study. This could show that the effects of artificial food colourings were getting worse at this time and were therefore more noticeable. The two tests were both government funded and the most recent study was conducted by the University of Southampton. The experiments involved the examination of the effects of artificial colourings on the behaviour of 240 children with clinically identified ADHD. The children were separated into two groups of children, 120 children were aged 3 and the other 120 children were aged 8/9. The test involved two different mixes of artificial colourings and preservatives, the first mix was same as the mix used in the previous test and the second mix was designed to be more representative of the various artificial colourings that were consumed on a daily basis by children of these particular age groups (The mix was the same for both groups). There was also a placebo mix produced that was only identifiable by the study administrator. The tests began by stopping all consumption of additives in the children’s diets and giving them all placebo drinks until a time when it was thought that there were no additives in the child’s body, this was roughly one week. This was called the ‘washout period’. After the washout period the children were all assigned one of the three mixes and were then given this same mix for the following six weeks, daily at regular intervals. During the six weeks the children were on a strict diet designed to eliminate all other sources of potential artificial food colourings and, if in any case the child were to consume an item of food containing colouring the child’s parent/s were to record this in a diary. This allowed the experiment to be controlled and any anomalies in the data to be easily identified. During the six weeks research assistants, teachers and parents closely monitored each child’s behaviour. None of these people having any knowledge of which mix each child had been assigned. For the older children a standard attention test was used. The main results of this test were:

1.For younger children on average mix A showed higher effect on behaviour than mix B when compared to the placebo

2.For older children on average mix B showed higher effect on behaviour than mix A when compared to the placebo

3.There were differences seen between individuals resulting in some children not showing behavioural changes with either mix

Result 3 (above) shows that there were differences between each individuals reaction to the colourings, this suggests that the extent to which children’s bodies react to artificial food colourings depends on their genetic make up. This could mean that like with many things, the reaction that children have to artificial food colourings could potentially be similar to the reaction people have when they are allergic to a substance. Could identifying which specific colourings children are susceptible to lead to a reduction of the impacts of artificial food colourings?

Results 1 and 2 (above) suggest that, as children develop the artificial food colourings that they are susceptible to could in fact change and therefore identifying specific colourings that a child reacts to could prove to be very difficult. The data collected from this study is not enough to say whether or not, when a child is younger they react to more types of artificial colourings than when they are older, but this were true it could suggest that children did in fact grow out of the reaction that results in an effect on behaviour and therefore in order to reduce the effects on behaviour, artificial food colourings should be completely eliminated from a child’s diet until such a time when consuming them no longer affects their behaviour.

Study 2 [4] is a study that examined the effects of food dyes on hyperactive children through learning tests. This was a study that was carried out in 1970/1980 by Swanson and Kinsbourne. The test involved a small sample of 40 children, but not in equal ratios of male to female. There were 36 boys compared to only 4 girls. They first separated the children into two equal groups, one group consisting of children who had been clinically confirmed to be hyperactive and the other non-hyperactive. The children were then all put a strict Feingold diet for three consecutive days. The Feingold diet is one where all artificial food colourings are removed from the diet. After the three consecutive days, the children in the first group received either a 100mg dose of food dyes or a placebo, which was in this case sugar. While the second group received either a 150mg dose of food dyes or the same placebo. They were all given the same doses for two days. For each day of the experiment the children were required to take learning tests at 9:30 am, 10:30 am, 11:30 am and 1:30 pm. The test involved matching pictures and numbers and each time the picture stimuli were in a random order. The children’s performance for each test was measured by using the amount of mistakes they made.

The main results of this test were:

1.The food dye dose significantly reduced the children’s results in the learning tests

2.Results showed that the children’s results who had received the food dye mix in both groups had worsened and by roughly the same amount.

3.The results also show that for hyperactive children (challenge a) the results on the learning test improved for the group of children who received a placebo mix. While for the non-hyperactive group the results of the children who received the placebo mix had worsened.

4.The results show that for the non –hyperactive children (challenge b) the placebo had no effect on the children’s results.

5.The results show that the food dye mix had a great effect on the group of hyperactive children.

From the results above we can see that food dyes hardly have any effect on non-hyperactive children’s behaviour. With the results on the learning test deteriorating similarly for both the children who received the placebo and the children who received the food dye mix. This strongly suggests that the food dyes had no effect on the non-hyperactive children and a possible reason for this deterioration could be mental fatigue throughout the day. Evidence for this is in the slight improvement of results after noon.

For the hyperactive children the food dyes clearly had a large effect on the children’s learning test results. The main reason for this being the huge difference in the 1:30 pm test results of the children who had the food dye mix compared to those who had the placebo. The difference of 10 errors is strong evidence for this conclusion, especially when compared to the difference in results for the non-hyperactive children, which is roughly 2/3 errors.

Study 3 [5] aimed to identify the effects of artificial colourings and benzoate preservative on children’s behaviour. This study originally involved 2878 children aged 3, but not all children completed every phase of the study and as a result some figures do not add up to 2878. Before the test the children were tested to decide if they were hyperactive or not and if they were atopic or not. This was determined through clinical tests and skin prick tests. The children were then separated into four groups according to hyperactivity and atopy. With an atopic child being one who had a reaction to one or more of specific substances. There were roughly 277 each of the following four groups:

Hyperactive and positive atopy test Not hyperactive and positive atopy test Hyperactive and negative atopy test Not hyperactive and negative atopy test

The children then all followed a strict diet eliminating all artificial food colourings from their diets for four weeks. For the second week the children were randomly given either a placebo mix or a mix of food dyes and sodium benzoate and then for the fourth week the children were given the mix that they did not have for week 2. Eg: week 2= placebo and week 4= food dye mix (active) and vice versa. The mixes were delivered in fruit juice, served in identical containers, with only the study administrator knowing which child had received each mix. The children were studied on weeks 2 and four by psychologists and were also given ratings by their parents regarding any changes in their behaviour. The children were also studied during play and whilst completing several tasks. Some parents withdrew their child/children from the study before testing was completed. They claimed this was due to the child’s adverse behaviour and the study administrators therefore noted this.

Also, because the test was conducted on children of such a young age some results were missing and therefore some results were filled in using modal data or mean results. The result for this study was as follows:

1.The children who received placebo then active showed similar behavioural patterns to children who received active then placebo.

2.The parental ratings suggest that for when the child was receiving either the placebo or active mix, during the washout period that followed the child’s hyperactivity levels were distinctly lower.

3.The clinical studies do not show this, they show that they level of the child’s hyperactivity did not change during washout periods.

4.The challenges showed no significant changes to the children’s behaviours.

Result number 2 can be regarded as unreliable. This is because, although the parents were blind as to which mix their children were consuming, they were not blind to the fact that their children were consuming a mix. Regardless of which mix the child was consuming, psychologically, the parent would have been anticipating a change in the children’s behaviour. This could have strongly influenced the ratings that they recorded. Also, because the clinical studies did not show any change in behaviour, this gives a strong suggestion that the parental ratings were in fact false. Therefore I will not be including this result in my final analysis.

The results of all of the three studies above indicate that there is little certainty as to how much of an effect artificial food colouring has on behaviour. This is because, the results from the first study suggest that artificial food colourings only have an effect on some children and that they also effect some children more than others. It also suggested that children of different ages reacted to different dyes. The sample size of this study was fairly large, with 240 children, but some would consider the sample too small to account for the massive number of children that the sample represents. This applies to the second study even more so, as the sample size was very small with a mere 40 children. Also, the second results show a general trend that children’s behaviour worsens when they have consumed food dyes. But these results also suggested that artificial food dyes affected children who were classified as hyperactive or with ADHD greatly while they only affected children who were not classified as hyperactive or who did not have ADHD very minimally. On the other hand, study three showed that, even if a child was hyperactive or not or was atopic or not they did not show any behaviour changes when they consumed artificial food dyes. This study, unlike the other two use a much larger sample of over 2000 children which, theoretically should therefore show much more accurate results that can account for the rest of the population of children. This means that, although we cannot assume a study to be incorrect, there may be a hidden error in the data or that there is an underlying cause for the relationships that results in differing results for similar tests. As a result of this, to what extent artificial food colourings have an effect on behaviour for children in general, in scientific terms is unclear. Although the main result is inconclusive, we can conclude that the extent to which artificial food colouring effects an individual can vary greatly. From being completely unaffected, regardless of the amount of food colourings consumed, to being greatly affected to the point of a reduced mental capacity and a reduction in learning ability as well as extensive behavioural changes including aggressiveness, being easily distracted, reduced attention span and overactivity.

Reducing the effects of artificial food colourings on behaviour

There are many methods of reducing the effects of artificial food colours that are currently in place across the world. Many of these methods aiming to completely eliminate certain artificial food colourings. The first method is one that the majority of the population would have heard of. This method is the process of identifying the artificial colourings that have particularly dangerous effects on humans. There is an extensive list of artificial food colourings that have been banned from consumables in the UK. There are also some food colourings that can only be used in certain foods as well as foods which cannot have any artificial food colourings added to them.

All of the colourings found in strict lists are permitted for use in food products in the UK. Some foods cannot contain any food colourings, and some can only have specific food colourings in. For example, milk, fruits and vegetables must not under any circumstances be artificially coloured and beer and certain cheeses must only have very specific artificial colourings added to them. There are also some colourings that can only be used if they are in certain foods. These lists are also available in ‘The Colours in Food Regulations’. As well as these regulations there are also strict regulations on the amounts of food colourings allowed to be used in food, as well as the colouring not being able to alter the food in anyway except the colour.

Many top chefs these days refuse to use artificial food colourings in their food. This proves the fact that food still has the same flavour, regardless of its colour, but the saying that you eat with your eyes is true. If food lacking colour and food with colour were placed next to each other, the majority of people would rather eat the bright, colourful food over the food that is lacking in colour. But if the UK were to ban all food colourings, there would be no alternative to the natural food that does not look the same but in fact tastes exactly the same as the coloured food. In some cases the colour of foods would not change. Take Smarties for example, they contain absolutely no artificial colourings, yet they taste exactly the same as they did before the colourings were removed and mostly look exactly the same as they did before, except for the highly controversial blue smartie that is paler in colour.

Another method of reducing the amounts of artificial food colourings that are being consumed is one that was enforced in Norway. This is the banning of all artificial food colourings in food. The Norwegian government brought this into place in 1978 due to the suspected effects of the colourings on children and because the government did not consider them as being a necessary ingredient in food. Since then, the law has changed to allow the use of artificial food colourings in food, provided the manufacturer makes them easily identifiable to the consumer in the ingredients. This is so that the public can make informed choices about what they are consuming. There are also strict regulations enforced in other counties including, Australia, New Zealand, USA, Japan, Canada and the European Union.

Some people may not need a law to be put in place before they start avoiding artificial food colourings. A fairly basic but obvious way of reducing the effects of artificial food colourings is simply boycotting them. This may be easier for some people than for others, for example, there are people who are allergic to some artificial food dyes or find that they cause migraines. These people therefore actively avoid them in order to be in good health while others know that artificial colourings can have negative effects so try to avoid them when possible. Other people do not avoid them at all, sometimes due to ignorance of the effects that they can have. As a result of this, a way to reduce the effects of colourings in food would be to educate people on the matter and make artificial food colourings more easily identifiable on food packaging so that, like in Norway, people can make more informed decisions about the food they are eating.

Scientists worldwide are working on finding substitutes for artificial colourings that are safe and suitable for use in food. These substitutes have to be made of natural substances such as fruit and plants that are safe, rather than the man-made chemicals that are used in artificial colours. Some of the colours that are already being used in products that are made by Nestlé are made from natural colourings found in black carrot, lemon and hibiscus flowers (Appendix 2). The process of extracting these colours may, in some cases be lengthy or more expensive than using artificial, chemical colourings, but when this is weighed against the benefits of using natural colourings, many people would agree that this is all worthwhile.

A method, which to some people may or may not be feasible, is reducing the price of foods that contain no artificial food colourings. For people such as manufacturers of all natural products may be against this as it could potentially reduce their profits, but on the other hand if enough people bought these natural products because they were more informed of the benefits of eliminating artificial colourings from their diets, the manufacturers could see benefits of having reduced prices and much higher sales of their products. This initiative would be more beneficial to consumers because it would be encouraging them to buy the better option, which is at a lower price and is therefore more affordable for many more people. Instead of making healthier products more expensive, which discourages people from buying them, they should be made cheaper so that the population can be healthier. Also, for this method to be effective, it would involve making products that contain artificial colourings more expensive, so that they are less affordable for the average person and therefore they buy and consume less of them.

In conclusion, the effects of artificial food colourings on behaviour vary greatly from person to person, dependant on many factors including age, gender and genetics. Some people are greatly affected, with consumption of artificial colours resulting in migraines and symptoms similar to those expected from an allergy, while others are hardly affected at all, with at most a slight change in behaviour if large amounts are consumed within a short time period. Although there is variation in the extent of the effects, there are many ways to reduce the impacts artificial colouring have on behaviour. With some that would need to be enforced by the government and some that can be undertaken within small communities, while others only applying to specific individual needs dependant on the effects that the colourings have on the individual. The effects of artificial colourings have been dramatically reducing ever since the first synthetic dyes were discovered and used. A large number of research programmes that have been undertaken and are still on-going suggest that further knowledge will be gained across the world and that in years to come the human race could have a diet that is completely artificial colour free and have even better substitutes that produce the same vivid colours in great looking food.

[1] Handbook of Food Toxicology- S.S Deshpande P.226 (Google books)

[2] www.legislation Colours in Food act- 1995

[3] and Chronic and acute effects of artificial colourings and preservatives on children’s behaviour

[4] Food dyes impair performance of hyperactive children on a laboratory learning test

[5] The effects of a double blind, placebo controlled, artificial food colourings and benzoate preservative challenge on hyperactivity in a general population sample of preschool children

[6] Artificial colours around the world

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