James Gibson of cake decorations company Sweet Sensations knows he is swimming against the tide as he speaks up in defence of synthetic food colours in icing sugar and marzipan.

The Food Standards Agency (FSA) has imposed a voluntary ban on six synthetic E-number food colours from the end of 2009, and retailers have already demanded suppliers clean up labels. Europe is also set to impose labelling regulations on the forbidden colours from 2010.

But the ’synthetic versus natural’ debate is far from black and white, according to Gibson. As he argues: "In cake decoration you want the product to look good enough to eat. These new natural colours are dull and boring. I can understand why you would want to limit consumption in everyday use, but in cake decoration, you only have one birthday cake and it should look attractive."

There’s a lot more to the case he is making than appearance, he adds. He takes the example of annatto, a reddish-orange dye made from the seed of the achiote, which is being used as a natural alternative yellow dye. "In 10kg of marzipan I would use 5g of synthetic colour and, actually, only 12% of that would be colour. With the natural colour I have to use 120g," he says.

On top of that, are the natural colours actually proven to be better? Gibson’s own daughter is allergic to annatto, he explains, suffering from fever if she accidentally consumes it.

The Food and Drink Federation’s (FDF) Biscuit, Cake, Chocolate and Confectionery (BCCC) sector manager Barbara Gallani is also unconvinced by the relative benefits of natural colours: "In terms of shelf-life, stability, and with regard to the cost of natural colours, there are a number of issues that manufacturers need to address," she says. However, consumer demand for clean-label makes this a particularly sensitive issue to tackle, she says. The FDF continues to engage with the FSA on it, she adds.

Colours crackdown

The crackdown on artificial colours follows a Southampton University study, commissioned by the FSA in 2007. The study, Chronic and acute effects of artificial colourings and preservatives on children’s behaviour, was published in The Lancet.

It looked at consumption of the preservative sodium benzoate (E211), and artificial colours; tartrazine (E102), ponceau 4R (E124), sunset yellow (E110), carmoisine (E122), quinoline yellow (E104) and allura red AC (E129).

It considered the effect of mixes of these additives on a range of children aged between three and nine, drawn from the general population and across a range of hyperactivity and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder severities.

The researchers concluded that artificial food colours and additives exacerbate hyperactive behaviour in children - at least up to middle childhood.

At its board meeting in April 2008, the FSA agreed that the UK food industry should be encouraged to remove the colours voluntarily by 2009. And it shared the Southampton research findings with the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), which was conducting a review of the safety of all food colours approved for use in the European Union, at the request of the European Commission.

In March 2008, EFSA issued its opinion on the Southampton study, saying that the study could not be used as a basis for altering the Acceptable Daily Intakes of the additives in question.

As the situation stands, from the end of 2010, products made using the six Southampton colours (see image) will have to carry a warning: "May have an adverse effect on activity and attention in children." Details of how this will work have yet to be finalised. And it would appear the jury is still very much out on whether it is a good idea. Dreary-looking celebration cakes are bound to be a less-than-welcome result for the bakery sector.


=== Some natural food dyes ===

l Caramel colouring - made from caramelised sugar, used in cola products and also in cosmetics

l Annatto - a reddish-orange dye made from the seed of the achiote

l A green dye made from chlorella algae

l Cochineal - a red dye derived from the cochineal insect, Dactylopius Coccus

l Betanin - extracted from beets

l Turmeric

l Saffron

l Paprika

l Elderberry juice


=== Why ban artificial colours? ===

The FSA’s arguments for banning the ’Southampton Six’ food colours:

l the Southampton study is "a scientific study of the highest quality"

l there is an accumulating body of evidence that there is an association between the consumption of certain food colours and children’s behaviour

l all food additives must be safe for use in order to be approved. The available evidence now leaves uncertainty as to whether that safety can be confidently asserted

l the technological function of colours in food is about conferring a consumer choice benefit rather than a safety benefit

l a significant part of the UK food industry is already moving away from the use of artificial food colours in responding to consumer demand.

And the Food and Drink Federation’s position:

"For a number of years, the UK industry has been responding to consumers’ demands for fewer artificial additives in food and drinks. Our members have been reducing the use of the colours highlighted in the Southampton study. The overwhelming majority of products don’t contain these particular colours. However, there are a handful of popular food and drinks where reformulation has not been possible for technical reasons and we are concerned these will have to be taken off shop shelves in light of the FSA proposal."