If your child shows signs of hyperactivity or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), eliminating some colours from their diet might have beneficial effects on their behaviour.

These colours include:

  • sunset yellow (E110) 
  • quinoline yellow (E104)
  • carmoisine (E122)
  • allura red (E129)
  • tartrazine (E102)
  • ponceau 4R (E124)

These colours are used in a number of foods, including soft drinks, sweets, cakes and ice cream.

The Food Standards Agency (FSA) has published a list of manufacturers with food ranges free from the six colours.

What are E numbers?

All food additives, whether natural or artificial, must go through a rigorous safety assessment and approval procedure, and must comply with European Union (EU) legislation. They're only allowed to be used if experts decide they're necessary and safe.

If a food additive has an E number, this shows it's passed safety tests and has been approved for use throughout the EU.

If colours are used in food they must be declared in the list of ingredients as 'colour', with either their name or E number.

If any of the six colours listed above are in food or drink, the food label must also have a specific warning saying that the colour 'may have an adverse effect on activity and attention in children'.

You can avoid certain additives by checking the label. If you buy foods without packaging, you'll need to check with the manufacturer or the person selling the product.

The advice about food additives and hyperactivity was issued after being evaluated by the independent Committee on Toxicity and the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) following research commissioned by the FSA.

The FSA is encouraging manufacturers to work towards finding alternatives to these food colours. Some manufacturers and retailers have already taken action to remove them. The FSA website has more information about where to find products free from the colours associated with hyperactivity.

You should also be aware that certain additives, such as sulphites, can cause allergic reactions. Read more about the causes of food allergy.

The difference between hyperactivity and ADHD

In the context of this advice, hyperactivity is when a child is overactive, can't concentrate and acts on sudden impulses without thinking about alternatives.

Experts think hyperactivity affects 2-5% of children in the UK. There's no single test for diagnosing it.

It's important to remember that hyperactivity is also associated with factors other than additives, including premature birth, genetics and upbringing.

ADHD is more than just hyperactive behaviour. It's linked to a specific pattern of behaviour, including reduced attention span and difficulty concentrating, to the extent that the child’s ability to learn and function at home and school is affected. Children with ADHD often have learning difficulties and behavioural problems.


Page last reviewed: 18/02/2015

Next review due: 18/02/2017