The publication of new research into the effects of artificial colourings and preservatives on children's behaviour has once again put children's soft drinks in the spotlight. Annette Farr believes that the industry's best response is to trumpet the increasing number of additive-free variants available on the market.

Recently published research on the effect of additives and colourants on children's behaviour is likely to have parents scrutinising labels more closely than ever before, but the combination of legally required ingredient information and marketing messages means food and drink labels today represent a bombardment of information.

In its response to the findings of the recent study, commissioned by the Food Standards Agency (FSA) and undertaken by the University of Southampton, the British Soft Drinks Association (BSDA) stated that all additives and colourants used by manufacturers are legally approved, and that consumers have the opportunity to check the labels and simply not buy products containing ingredients they are worried about. However, there must be some concern that it is not always practical for busy parents to do this.

Besides the legal requirement that all ingredients be listed, there are five-a-day messages, traffic light labelling and recommended daily guidelines, as well as a breakdown of nutritional information. Organic, vegetarian and recycling symbols are increasingly seen, adding further to the information overload.

It is hard enough for time-rich consumers to take all that in as they trawl the supermarket shelves, let alone time-pressed parents with boisterous children. Moreover, it is ironic that if some of that boisterousness, or even hyperactivity in some cases, is caused by additives in food and drinks, the parents of the most at-risk children are likely to be the ones most distracted and therefore least able to take in the necessary information.
 
However, the BSDA and the Food and Drink Federation did not just urge consumers to read labels. In their response, they also drew attention to the increasing number of products being launched without such additives. Indeed, manufacturers of children's soft drinks have been proactive in developing new recipes, eliminating the need for E numbers, and preservatives.

If any trend has emerged in 2007 it is the 'all natural' healthy drink with no added sweeteners, colours, flavours or preservatives. This is seen across leading brands such as Panda and own label; Sainsbury's Own Kids range, for example, is free from artificial flavourings, colours and the preservative sodium benzoate.

The move away from E numbers is further confirmed by the latest research from market analyst Mintel. Mintel's Global New Products database (GNPD) reveals that one in every four (24%) new food and drink product launches in the UK claims to be additive and preservative-free, compared to just 8% in 2004.

Mintel also records that so far this year, almost 1,000 new products claiming to contain no additives or preservatives have been launched, compared to 800 for all of 2006. "Manufacturers are tapping into the nation's growing desire for a more natural lifestyle, as consumers take a greater interest in what really goes into their food," says David Jago, director of Mintel's GNPD Custom Solutions.

Furthermore, according to Mintel in 2006 'additive and preservative-free' became the number one health claim in the food and drinks market, overtaking 'low fat' for the first time. And this trend, says Mintel, is set to continue.

Regarding the continued use of additives and preservatives, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) is currently undertaking a re-evaluation of the safety of all food colours authorised in the European Union on a case-by-case basis. It will be taking into account the recent findings of the Southampton study.

Meanwhile, in the US the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) is looking into the labelling question. The FDA has just begun an information-gathering process to assess the efficacy of nutritional labelling symbols in helping consumers to make an informed healthy choice. Although any possible legislation on this is some way off, the problem over confusing messages has already been raised by Senator Tom Hawkins, chairman of the Senate Agricultural Committee.

"The proliferation of different nutrition symbols on food packaging, well-intended as it may be, is likely to further confuse, rather than assist, American consumers who are trying to make good nutrition choices for themselves and their families," Hawkins says. "The FDA should take meaningful steps to establish some consistency to these many different systems of nutrition symbols."

Senator Hawkins has identified the very problem that exists in Europe. It is to be hoped that once EFSA's revaluation exercise is complete and made law throughout the EU, the resultant information can be presented on labels in a consistent,simple and uniformed format, and in language that consumers can understand.