A consumer advocacy group called on the Food and Drug Administration Tuesday to ban the use of eight artificial colourings in food because the additives may cause hyperactivity and behaviour problems in some children.

Controlled studies conducted over three decades have shown that children's behaviour can be worsened by some artificial dyes, says the Center for Science in the Public Interest. The group noted the British government is successfully pressuring food manufacturers to switch to safer colourings.

Over the years, the FDA has consistently disputed the centre's assertion. The agency's website contains a 2004 brochure that asks the question: "Do additives cause childhood hyperactivity?"

"No. Although this hypothesis was popularized in the 1970s, well-controlled studies conducted since then have produced no evidence that food additives cause hyperactivity or learning disabilities in children," the agency said.

Julie Zawisza, an FDA spokeswoman, said Tuesday that color additives undergo safety reviews before approval for marketing and that samples of each artificial colouring are tested. She said the agency reviewed one of the studies the centre cites in calling for a ban.

"[We] didn't find a reason to change our conclusions that the ingredients are safe for the general population," Zawisza said. "Also note that the European Food Safety Agency has a similar view as FDA's."

Dyes are used in countless foods and sometimes used to simulate the colour of fruits or vegetables. The additives are particularly prevalent in the cereals, candies, sodas and snack foods pitched to kids.

"The purpose of these chemicals is often to mask the absence of real food, to increase the appeal of a low-nutrition product to children, or both," said Michael F. Jacobson, the centre's executive director.

"Who can tell the parents of kids with behavioural problems that this is truly worth the risk?"

The centre's petition asks the FDA to require a warning label on foods with artificial dyes while it mulls the group's request to ban the dyes outright.

The colourings the centre seeks to ban are:

  • Yellow 5
  • Red 40
  • Blue 1
  • Blue 2
  • Green 3
  • Orange B
  • Red 3
  • Yellow 6