In an opinion released last week, the EFSA Panel on Food Additives and Nutrient Sources presented findings on a new toxicological 28-day study on rats which was designed to re-evaluate Sunset Yellow (E110) as a food additive. Findings from this study concluded that previous findings (Mathur et al. 2005) should be disregarded. This has resulted in the temporary ADI being increased from 1mg/kg/bw/day to 4mg/kg/bw/day for all population groups2.
Sunset Yellow (E110) is a yellow food colourant found in soft drinks, confectionery and baked products and was the focus of much attention and speculation in 2007, when a paper published in the Lancet stated that the consumption of this additive directly influenced the development of hyperactive behaviour among children3.
These findings had far reaching effects, with EU legislation developed to stipulate that a food containing any one of the 6 colours must carry a label stating the food “may have an adverse effect on activity and attention in children”1. This was despite EFSA maintaining the view that the evidence available to them at the time did not justify such actions. However, the ADI’s for three of these colours were subsequently lowered, including that of Sunset Yellow.
Every day we are exposed to chemicals from a number of different sources. So, two key questions must be asked:
We must remember that even chemicals that occur freely in nature can be harmful to us if we are exposed to high doses. Consider ricin (a chemical that occurs naturally in castor beans); being exposed to this natural chemical at high levels can be lethal (evidence of this has been seen in high profile assassinations and also in the popular TV series ‘Breaking Bad’).
The key point is this: we cannot escape being exposed to chemicals, but we can accurately and realistically assess our exposure levels and determine if we are at risk. This is especially true in terms of dietary chemicals (such as the food colourant Sunset Yellow), as foods we eat on a daily basis will contain chemicals to preserve food, elongate shelf life and make food more visually appealing. We just have to make sure we can accurately assess if these chemicals are in our foods at a safe level.
This concept was highlighted by research conducted and published by a group of Irish researchers in UCD following the publication of the McCann et al (2007) paper3. This research used national dietary consumption data, coupled with real additive occurrence data (i.e. what brands were actually consumed that contained the additives being investigated) and probabilistic exposure assessments to ensure all of the available real data of importance was being used in the analysis. And what did they find? Out of approximately 118,000 recorded eating occasions, no Irish child or teenager consumed all 7 additives investigated by McCann et al during one eating occasion. Furthermore, the levels deemed to cause hyperactivity by McCann et al were never reached by any Irish child or teenager, not even in the top 1% of consumers of the additives4. Yet, as this research was being conducted, legislation was being enacted to drastically reduce levels of usage and issue health warnings on food packaging.
The EFSA opinion released last week further highlights the value of good science and more detailed and refined risk assessment.