UK researchers have warned that children may develop hyperactive behaviour if their diets contain food additives.
The Food Standards Agency, a non-ministerial government department of the UK Government, carried out a study on 300 randomly selected children and found that hyperactivity increased after a drink containing additive combinations.
The agency says that hyperactive children might benefit from fewer additives. However, health experts claim that drugs, not diet changes, will be more beneficial in the most severe cases.
The researchers say that 5 to 10 per cent of school-age children suffer from some degree of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), with symptoms such as impulsiveness, inability to concentrate and excessive activity. They say that the number of boys diagnosed for with the condition is more than girls.
With financial aid from the Food Standards Agency, Southampton University researchers examined whether giving additives to a group of ordinary three-year-olds and eight or nine-year-olds had any effect on their behaviour or not.
The children were randomly given one of three drinks—a potent mix of colourings and additives, a drink that roughly matched the average daily additive intake of a child of their age, or a "placebo" drink that had no additives.
Upon measuring the hyperactivity levels in the study subjects, the researchers found that mix "A", with the high levels of additives, had a "significantly adverse" effect compared with the inactive placebo drink.
The older children showed some adverse effects after the second, less potent mix, but the response varied significantly from child to child.
According to lead researcher Jim Stevenson, the findings indicate that certain mixtures of artificial food colours, alongside sodium benzoate, a preservative used in ice cream and confectionary, may raise hyperactivity.
"However, 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 BBC quoted him as saying.
Julian Hunt, from Food and Drink Federation, said that the tests did not represent how the additives were used normally.
"Manufacturers are very aware of consumer sensitivities about the use of additives in food and drink products. It is important to reassure consumers that the Southampton study does not suggest there is a safety issue with the use of these additives," he said.
The study has been published in the journal Lancet.