FDA committee rejects bid for EU-style warnings over food colors, hyperactivity

By Elaine Watson

- Last updated on GMT

A Food and Drug Administration (FDA) advisory committee examining the link between food coloring and hyperactivity has narrowly voted against recommending European-style warning labels on products containing artificial food colors in the US.

Eric Mittenthal from the International Food Information Council (IFIC), who attended the two-day hearing at Silver Springs, Maryland, spoke to FoodNavigator-USA.com last night as it drew to a close.

He said: “On the major questions, the panel ruled that they agree with the FDA report that the link between food dyes and ADHD (Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) has not been established. They also narrowly voted to recommend that no changes to the label are needed. They’re debating whether more research is needed and generally agree that there is.”

​The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) had urged the committee to recommend warning labels on pack alerting shoppers to the alleged risks raised by eight approved artificial food colors.

CSPI executive director Michael Jacobson said he was disappointed the committee had chosen not to opt for labels, adding: "Instead of asking whether there was virtual proof that dyes cause hyperactivity - huge challenge - the agency should have asked whether there is convincing evidence that dyes do not impair children's behavior."
But the hearing had not been in vain, he insisted: "A year ago, the agency maintained that there was no evidence that dyes affect children's behavior. Now the agency recognizes that dyes do affect some children. That's an important change."

IFIC: Insufficient evidence of causal link between colors and hyperactivity

However, IFIC welcomed the decision not to push for labeling as a victory for common sense. Lindsey Loving, senior director, food ingredient & technology communications, said: “The fact that the committee did not push for a warning statement is in line with what the science shows, which is that there is insufficient evidence to support a causal link between food colors and hyperactivity in children.

“Adding a warning statement could confuse the general public for whom the message is not intended, and could cause alarm regarding safe food ingredients that have been consumed by the general public for years. Research will likely continue by those invested in the issue, but as far as the safety of food colors, the existing research establishes their safety.”

The Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) also stressed that the safety of artificial colors had been affirmed through extensive review by the FDA and the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), while pointing out that certified color additives must be listed in ingredients lists, enabling consumers to avoid them should they wish to do so.

However, some manufacturers have used the publicity surrounding the hearings to highlight their avoidance of artificial colors and flavors, notably Hain Celestial, which has called for warning labels to alert shoppers to their presence on the front of pack.

Chief executive Irwin Simon said: "Health concerns about artificial flavors and colors are not new, and our quality standards prohibit them, especially in children's products.”

Colors, kids and controversy

Controversy over the safety of artificial food colors has been raging for years, but reached a new frenzy in 2007 following the publication of a highly controversial study conducted by the University of Southampton in the UK suggesting a link between six food dyes – the ‘Southampton Six’ – and hyperactivity in children.

While EFSA concluded that the results could not be used as a basis for altering the acceptable daily intakes of the colors in question, the European Parliament baffled many observers by insisting that products featuring the colors should nevertheless include warning labels noting that they “may have an effect on activity and attention in children”​.

The FDA Food Advisory Committee - a panel of experts in nutrition, toxicology, food science, immunology, and psychology – met at the request of the CSPI, and was tasked with considering relevant data on the possible association between artificial food colors and hyperactivity in children, and advising the FDA as to what action, if any, was warranted to ensure consumer safety.

Related topics: Regulation, Flavors and colors

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