Food additives and children's behaviour: evidence‐based policy at the margins of certainty

Publication Date14 October 2009
AuthorJim Stevenson
SubjectEducation,Health & social care,Sociology
The possible effects of food additives (specifically artificial colours) have been debated for
over 30 years. The evidence accumulated suggests that for some children with attention
deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) food colours exacerbate their condition. Two studies
undertaken by a research group at the University of Southampton have extended these
findings to the effects on hyperactivity in children from the general population who do
not show ADHD. This article reviews the response from policy-makers to these findings
and concludes that the failure to impose a mandatory ban on the six food colours in the
Southampton study is inadequate and that such a ban would be an appropriate application of
the precautionary principle when the evidence is considered to be at the margins of certainty.
Key words
hyperactivity; food additives; precautionary principle; evidence-based policy
were considered and acted upon by policy-
makers in the UK and elsewhere. The behaviour
thought to be most affected is hyperactivity, which
comprises overactivity, inattention and impulsivity.
Hyperactivity is known to be influenced by a wide
range of biological (eg. genetic differences, low birth
weight) and experiential factors (eg. institutional
care) (Taylor & Sonuga-Barke, 2008). The question
of the possible adverse effects of food additives as
one additional influence has been debated over the
past 40 years. The position in the UK until recently
was that these additives were permitted to be
used in food; they were indeed sanctioned for use
throughout the European Union (EU).
There is evidence that anti-social behaviour is
becoming more prevalent in the UK (Collishaw
et al, 2004). The social disruption, demands on
a variety of services and the financial cost of this
behaviour are considerable (Scott et al, 2001). One
known antecedent of later anti-social behaviour
is hyperactivity in young children (Sonuga-Barke
et al, 1997). Accordingly, it is a priority to identify
action that might be taken to reduce hyperactivity
in children.
This article provides an account of the way a set
of findings concerning the possible adverse effects
on children’s behaviour of certain food additives
Food additives and
children’s behaviour:
evidence-based policy
at the margins of certainty
Jim Stevenson
Professor Emeritus, School of Psychology, University of Southampton, UK

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