When It Comes to Synthetic Food Colors: Beware the 'Southampton Six'

July 6, 2010
With a link to hyperactivity established, Europe slaps warning labels on six synthetic colorants.

The replacement of synthetic food colors has never been more topical. This month, the European Union will require the following warning on six food color additives: "Warning: Alurra Red AC E129 [or one of the other five colors] may have an adverse effect on activity and attention in children."

"The Southampton Six" is not a group of antiwar protesters; but they've been convicted all the same. Those are the six colors that a 2007 British study singled out for a connection to hyperactivity in children. In addition to Alurra Red (also called Red 40) the others are Ponceau 4R (E124); Tartrazine (Yellow 5) (E102); Sunset Yellow FCF/Orange Yellow S (Yellow6) (E110); Quinoline Yellow (E104); and Carmoisine (E102).

Each of them has a "natural" equivalent, although the substitute may vary with the application (see table at the end of this article)

Those numbers in parentheses (e.g., E102) are their European Food Safety Authority (EFSA)-assigned additive numbers, like our FD&C numbers. "If at all possible, you don't want to have to use an E-number on your label," says Jennifer Guild, global food science and regulatory manager with D.D. Williamson (, with U.S. headquarters in Louisville, Ky. "Labels without them are perceived to be more consumer-friendly."

The warning labels are the result of a 2007 research study at the University of Southampton. There were two parts to the project. In one, 153 three-year-olds and 144 eight- and nine-year-olds were given one of two drink mixes containing synthetic food colors and additives or a placebo. The children were drawn from the general population and across a range of hyperactivity and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) severities.

One mix contained four of the suspect colors plus and sodium benzoate (as a preservative), and the other mix contained two of the other suspect colorants plus one from the first group, as well as sodium benzoate. The test also was done in two phases. After the phases, the children's behavior was assessed.

Researchers concluded that the "artificial" food colors and additives exacerbated hyperactive behavior in the children, at least up to middle childhood.
The study is not without its detractors. The very fact that sodium benzoate was included arouses some questions among food science professionals – could sodium benzoate be the real missing link? On the other hand, it's also a safe bet that sodium benzoate will be included in most formulations. And while the tests were administered at the university, the children went home each day, where they could have been exposed to other things that aggravated their hyperactivity.

Nevertheless, the study is considered the most convincing example of a link between at least these six suspect color additives and hyperactivity in children. Some called for an outright ban of the colorants in Europe, but the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) settled on the warning label. For now.

If your products are marketed in Europe, you're already dealing with this new EFSA rule. If you're considering future sales in Europe, take note. And with similar concerns spreading in the U.S. and Canada, some observers think a similar warning will come to North America soon.

"To eliminate synthetic colors in formulations, food & beverage manufacturers can choose from a wide array of natural alternatives," says a D.D. Williamson promotion piece. The company the company operates 10 manufacturing sites on five continents, so it has to deal with a lot of localized regulations. "Natural colors alone do not have the same color intensity as synthetics, and some (not all) are less economical on a dosage basis; however, technological advances have reduced this performance gap."

"Plus, there's just a general movement throughout the food industry to more natural foods and ingredients, so why not?" adds Guild.

"Why use a synthetic if there is a natural source available?" asks Rodger Jonas, director of national sales for P.L. Thomas (, Morristown, N.J. "Stores have started to demand more natural products. As more natural products get on the shelf, [consumer] demand will continue to rise for natural products, and therefore for natural colors."

However, the use of the word "natural" in relation to colors is prohibited in the U.S. It's OK for flavors and other ingredients, but not colors. Anything added to a food to improve its color – even elderberry juice – is not considered "natural." Although some day that may change.

There's another advantage to using naturally sourced color additives. "Many of the new colors, such as our Tomato Red, [not only] provide a clean label [but] are natural antioxidants with proven clinical studies," adds Jonas. "The side benefits are as important as the use as a colorant. The consumer is generally well aware, exceeding 85 percent recognition, of the benefits of lycopene."

Also, "We have found that several products in the market, not natural or from unusual sources, can have negative impact as allergens and the ability to obtain certifications such as Kosher," Jonas continues. "So the food industry wants and needs continued development of new forms of natural colors."

See colors at IFT
There should be a good amount of activity and discussion on this subject at this month's Institute of Food Technologists' Food Expo. D.D. Williamson will be introducing what it calls the darkest Class One caramel color -- stable in low pH, high alcohol and high salt -- for natural foods and beverages plus a certified organic annatto extract.

P.L. Thomas promises a handful of natural colors plus "a range of antioxidants at that provide color plus health benefits."

Wild Flavors ( will feature its recently introduced line of Colors from Nature, including what the company claims is the first of its kind: a naturally derived, acid-stable blue color developed from natural fruit juices.

Symrise ( recently introduced the SymColor portfolio, with two major product lines: SymColor concentrated colors, which occur in nature, and SymColor colorant foods – all-natural and labeling friendly.

ColorMaker ( specializes in natural colors. It offers both "standard" natural color blends for coloring specific products ("the raw materials utilized in these color blends are all FDA approved") and custom natural color blends tailored to a client's exact product requirements. The company notes it does not add artificial preservatives to its color blends.