x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Stop the Southampton Six

A packet of sweets prompted Lateefa Almazrouei, a Zayed University nutrition student, to explore how common six unhealthy additives are in the UAE.

After a family holiday, Lateefa Almazrouei realised that sweets in the Emirates contain additives that are restricted elsewhere.
After a family holiday, Lateefa Almazrouei realised that sweets in the Emirates contain additives that are restricted elsewhere.

As a nutrition student, I am obviously more interested than most people in the ingredients that make up the foods we regularly consume. This label-checking has become more than an occasional habit, and some people suggest it has become a little obsessive of late. My obsession began when, on one of our family holidays abroad, I happened to keep the packaging from an internationally recognised candy brand. Upon buying the same brand in the UAE, I was surprised to see that although the bright packaging and smiling happy faces on the wrapper were identical, the listed ingredients were not.

I later discovered that the difference in ingredients was due in particular to six additives commonly used to colour food. In the European Union and North America, the use of these six additives has been controlled. Regulations require products using them to carry a warning label, and in the UK their use has been phased out altogether. These additives have become internationally famous in the food world and are known as the "Southampton Six": Tartrazine (also known by its food identification number, E102), Quinoline Yellow (E104), Sunset Yellow (E110), Carmoisine (E122), Ponceau Red (E124) and the enticingly named Allura Red (E129). A packet of the same sweets bought in the capital at the weekend listed E110, E129 and E102, in that order, among its ingredients.

The restrictions on the additives' use, and their phasing out by some nations, is based on good science, specifically well-controlled research undertaken at Southampton University in the UK. This research showed very convincingly that the consumption of these additives caused hyperactivity in young children. So, limiting the Southampton Six is a reasonable and responsible decision, unless you value hyperactivity in young children.

The use of additives has a long history. Colorants have been added to food products for decades. As early as the 1880s, additives in the form of synthetic dyes were used to make food more compelling and eye-catching. Additives carry out a variety of useful functions and play a key role in maintaining the food qualities and characteristics that consumers desire. Colorants are particularly useful when trying to catch the eyes and hearts of young children.

Cast your mind back a few years to the fad for unconventional colours, such as Heinz's EZ Squirt ketchup, which, in 2000, appeared in Blastin' Green. The product was such a hit it increased the company's total sales of ketchup by more than five per cent, which led to the creation of other oddly coloured ketchups, such as Funky Purple, Stellar Blue and Mystery Colour. OK, children like fun and children like colourful foods, but at what cost? For the UK government, at least, the line is drawn at hyperactivity and the child's long-term well-being.

But why should our children eat these additives and experience the consequences while children in the UK do not? In these days of globalisation, how can one global brand use different ingredients in different markets and pass the product off as the same thing? Is this something we should be concerned about? As part of my final-year research project I decided to find out. What I wanted to find out was just how common the Southampton six are in the products we buy for our children from the country's supermarkets, petrol stations and general stores. To explore this, I undertook an audit of the products on the shelves that would traditionally be consumed by children - sweets, soft drinks and crisps. In addition, I also looked at the food products going into the lunch boxes of my young nieces and nephews (nine children, aged eight to 14 years old).

The results amazed me and my project supervisor. From my supermarket audit of 515 child-orientated products, 223 contained one or more of the Southampton Six, which works out to 43.3 per cent. The worst category was candies, with 64.4 per cent of the products containing one or more of the Southampton Six. The conclusion is clear - our children are routinely eating additives that are known to produce hyperactivity in youngsters.

We wonder in puzzlement at the behavioural decline in schools - perhaps diet plays a part. Furthermore, the lunch box audit of my nieces and nephews spanned three consecutive school days and revealed that each child consumed at least four items over that period with one or more of the Southampton Six. There was not one day that any of my young family members did not consume an additive that has been phased out in other nations.

As a nutrition student about to graduate from Zayed University, I want to work towards ensuring continuous improvements in the health and well-being of our nation. Closer scrutiny and controls over the foods we eat has to be one key objective. * The National