Industry acting ahead of hyperactivity fears - expert

By Neil Merrett

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Soft drinks E number

The reformualtion of products due to health concerns over the
preservative sodium benzoate (E211) will not
significantly affect soft drink manufacturers, an expert

Philip Ashurst from industry consultants Ashurst and Associates told that most soft drinks manufacturers have been aware of the concerns about the additive for a very long time and were acting accordingly to find alternatives.

The claims come after the UK's Food Safety Agency yesterday revised its opinion on the use of the preservative to suggest that when mixed in combination of colourings such as tartrazine (E102) and carmoisine (E122), it could adversely affect hyperactive children.

This reflected the findings of a study it had commissioned through Southampton University that found that "consumption of mixes of certain artificial food colours together with the preservative sodium benzoate could be linked to an adverse effect on children's behaviour".

The latest findings have revived controversy over additive use in soft drinks, potentially requiring further reformulations of products by manufacturers.

In the study, the researchers conclude: "Although the use of artificial colouring in food manufacture might seem to be superfluous, the same cannot be said for sodium benzoate, which has an important preservative function.

The implications of these results for the regulation of food additive use could be substantial".

However, Ashurst says that the industry has a number of alternative additives that it could, and often was turning too, in place of sodium benzoate.

Sorbic acid is one of the main replacements.

"Although E211 is permitted for use in soft drinks, many manufacturers have already reacted to consumer pressure over the alleged links to increased hyperactivity by reformulating their drinks," he said.

Sorbic acid, which is added to beverages as a preservative in the form of potassium sorbate (E202), is an additive that is increasingly used in the formulation of modern soft drinks, he said.

While potassium sorbate is slightly more expensive than sodium benzoate, the cost impact of reformulating would not be great for the industry, Ashurst said.

He believes the cost has already been absorbed by many manufacturers.

He added the reaction of soft drinks producers to sodium benzoate reflected a wider industry trend of moving away from additive use altogether in beverage formulation, particularly in the ready-to-drink segment.

"Obviously there are some products where this is not possible, particularly for products such as squashes and cordials which require longer shelf and storage life," said Ashurst.

This industry focus could be vital for food and drinks groups, following the conclusion of the study on which the FSA based its opinions.

The study, which was published in The Lancet today, was conducted in two phases.

In stage one, 153 three-year olds and 144 eight- and nine-year olds were given one of two drink mixes containing artificial food colours and additives, or a placebo.

The children were drawn from general population and across a range of hyperactivity and ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) severities.

Mix A contained sunset yellow (E110), tartrazine (E102), carmoisine (E122), ponceau 4R (E124) and sodium benzoate (E110).

This same mix was used in an earlier study on a cohort of three-year-olds which was deemed inconclusive because the effects were not confirmed by clinicians.

Mix B contained sunset yellow (E110), quinoline yellow (E104), carmoisine (E122), allura red (E129) and sodium benzoate (E110).

Phase one lasted six weeks, and every child consuming the mixes and the placebo for one week each, with a one week wash-out period between each.

Parents were asked to keep other sources of artificial colours out of the diet, and to keep a diary of violations.

Phase two involved some of the children from the older group - responders and non-responders - during two half-day session a week apart, at which they were given either a placebo or an active drink similar to mix A or B, but the whole day's dose was given at once.

The conclusions drawn by the researchers were that artificial food colours and additives were seen to exacerbate hyperactive behaviour in children at least up to middle childhood.

Andrew Wadge, chief scientist at the FSA, said that while eliminating artificial colourings from the diet of children showing signs of hyperactivity or ADHD could be beneficial, this was just one aspect that could be at play.

Other aspects include genetics, premature birth, environment and upbringing.

Study author Jim Stevenson said: "Parents should not think that simply taking these additives out of food will prevent hyperactive disorders.

We know that many other influences are at work, but this at least is one a child can avoid."

The findings are not the first controversy caused by the use of additives like sodium benzoate in food and beverage products.

In 2006, an investigation by revealed soft drinks industry leaders had known the preservative may break down under certain conditions in the presence of asorbic acid or citric acid.

Benzine is a potential carcinogen.

The revelation led to a number of the industry's major manufacturers like Coca-Cola having to reformulate its soft-drinks in the US to halt a lawsuit alleging they may contain benzene.

While Coca-Cola continued to deny the allegation, said it changed formulas in its Vault Zero and Fanta Pineapple drinks last September to minimise benzene formation, the settlement document said.

The move means Coca-Cola joins several other soft drinks makers who have reformulated some of their products to avoid benzene litigation.

PepsiCo, Coca-Cola's arch-rival, still faces action over the issue.

Related topics Markets

Related news

Show more