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Experts take issue with food colouring programme

SMC Alert

Experts take issue with TV programme's report on artificial food colouring and kids' behaviour

A report by TV3's 60 Minutes this week on the effects of artificial food colouring ('Off Colour', Monday 29 June), has attracted criticism from nutrition experts, both over the science behind the report and of the on-camera 'experiment' it contained.

In the experiment, two groups of children were given different food - one group was given 'healthy' food, and the other was given 'party' food containing artificial colouring. The reporter then commented on the differences in behaviour she observed, attributing those differences to food colouring in the items consumed.

Follow this link to view the full report online.

Below are the views of some of New Zealand's nutrition experts, both on the programme and on the science behind it.

Lyn Gillanders, Senior Clinical Dietitian, NZ Dietetic Association comments:

"That the parents desire to provide their children with healthy food was admirable and a good goal for all NZ parents. The foods used on the "party table" of the programme were most certainly in the treat category and should be used very occasionally by all our children.

"The experiment conducted by TV3 was probably one of the most biased you could ever hope to see and only showed that if you hype children up enough with expectations and make them very excited about unlimited treat food that they hardly ever have then they will behave badly.

"The research on additives and children's behaviour is very much a mixed bunch with few good unbiased studies and no strong evidence that there is a connection between consumption and behaviour change.

"However parents are interested in anything that might improve their child's behaviour and it is an appealing concept that if you stop having foods with colour and flavour additives and concentrate on healthy staple foods then better behaviour ensues. Parental expectations probably play a powerful role here. (But if the end outcome is healthy eating then it is a win-win situation!)

"It is worth noting that food manufacturers recognise a marketing situation when they see one so the large UK chains moving away from additives is just a market response. Some of the brightly coloured extruded snacks are very appealing to young children, they might not be so appealing if they are just a natural cream colour. Exposure to additives is much smaller in Australasia as noted in the FSANZ modelling study so that may provide some reassurance for parents.

"Food colourings and flavourings don't add to the nutritive value of food and if you are trying to ensure your child eats well then just avoid the fizzy drinks, chips and extruded snacks and biscuits most of the time (and expect your child to be excited at a party)."

Dr Elaine Rush, Professor of Nutrition, Faculty of Health and Environmental Science at Auckland University of Technology comments:

"Why should we consume added chemicals that have no nutritive value. There is a case for preservatives because of food safety issues but colours and flavour are not necessary to health or life.

"The study referred to was published in November 2007 in the Lancet. Food colours and sodium benzoate were added to juice or the placebo was juice only. Diet was controlled and the study was double-blinded which makes it very high quality. Changes in behaviour were measured and on average an effect was seen. More importantly the change in some children was very marked which helps explain why some parents do notice changes in behaviour but others do not. Not everyone responds the same way.

"The 60 minute programme illustrated a point but they admitted this was not a demonstration that provided credible evidence.

"However looking at the nutritional quality of the two types of foods offered raises more questions that should be debated by parents. What do you give to people you love and want to be healthy and live long? Food safety is more than immediate disease - it has a role in helping brains and bodies develop to their full potential?

"Should foods containing sugar and caffeine only be given to children. Should they be called foods or pleasure providing substances? Should caffeine be part of a child's diet? What nutrients are excluded by a diet of coloured, processed, preservative containing foods?"

Dr Carol Wham, Senior Lecturer, Institute of Food, Nutrition and Human Health
Massey University comments:

"I would reiterate the recommendations made by the American Paediatric Association. Children who do appear to be affected by food colours should avoid them. This may require more effort in food procurement, preparation, and cooking. However with repeated exposure, familiarity and positive role modelling children's food acceptance patterns can be altered.

"When foods are given to children in positive contexts (with positive social interaction) children's preferences (liking) for those foods are enhanced. The opposite effect occurs when children are forced to eat 'healthy' foods to gain rewards.

"The evidence suggests that children form associations between food and social contexts in which eating occurs and through associative learning. They can develop a preference for healthy food and drink choices over time. It is worth the perseverance."

Additional resources:

Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) fact sheet on artificial food colouring and the UK study.

Notes to Editors
The Science Media Centre (SMC) is an independent source of expert comment and information for journalists covering science and technology in New Zealand. Our aim is to promote accurate, bias-free reporting on science and technology by helping the media work more closely with the scientific community. The SMC is an independent centre established by the Royal Society of New Zealand with funding from the Ministry of Research, Science and Technology.

The views expressed in this Science Alert are those of the individuals and organisations indicated and do not reflect the views of the SMC or its employees. For further information about the centre, or to offer feedback, please email us at


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