The industry is currently facing increased scrutiny over the use of artifical additive use in their products, following a new study conducted by University of Southampton scientists. The study results and the new advice to parents by the UK's Food Standards Agency (FSA) has led to increased pressure on processors to reformulate and even relabel their goods. The FSA said that Southampton University study suggested that: "eating or drinking certain mixes of additives together with the preservative sodium benzoate, could be linked to a negative effect on children's behaviour." Following a meeting yesterday with industry representatives, the FSA has called for food and beverage group's to detail information on what products are containing the colours used in the study. In reaction, the British Soft Drinks Association (BDSA) said its members were strongly committed to finding alternatives for their current formulations. "The BDSA can confirm that the vast majority of products produced by our members and enjoyed by young children do not include the colours identified in the study," the group stated. "The industry is progressively removing the colours concerned from the products it produces for young children." Just last week, major confectioners Cadbury Trebor Bassett and Mars UK announced their plans to phase out artificial additives in their products. Mars clams its Starburst, Skittles and M&M's will be free from artificial colours by the end of this year, while Cadbury has said it will have replaced all artificial colours in all confectionary products by 2008.
"We are committed to replacing all artificial colours in our sweets," Cadbury Trebor Bassett said in a statement. "We note the Southampton University findings, but we had begun this process already because we are continually listening to our consumers." Though major beverage manufacturers have not released any product specific commitments to cut additives following the FSA's reaction, some of its leading producers have revealed that they too will reformulate their products. A spokesperson for Coca-Cola Great Britain said the company continues to review what additives are going into their beverages. "It is important to recognise that the Southampton study does not suggest there is a safety issue with the use of these additives," the spokesperson stated. "However, we continue to evolve our products to meet the needs of British consumers, and recognise the trend for more natural products and ingredients." The spokesperson pointed to reformulation of its Fanta Orange product as an example of this focus, by now making the product with 30 per cent less sugar and no artificial colours. Claims by the beverage industry that it is already reacting to concerns over additive use were backed by industry consultant Philip Ashurst, who works with a number of leading soft drink manufacturers. Ashurst from industry consultants Ashurst and Associates told BeverageDaily.com that most soft drinks manufacturers have been aware of the concerns about additives for a very long time and were acting accordingly to find alternatives.
In particular, he suggested that additives like the preservative sodium benzoate (E211), which was used in the Southampton trails were already being phased out of many soft drink formulations. 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), 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 this month in The Lancet, 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 BeverageDaily.com 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.