So, the food industry has been poisoning the nation's children with a host of colourful nasties, has it?
Last week, five months after The Grocer broke the story, The Lancet finally published the FSA-commissioned study linking certain artificial colours and a preservative with behavioural and health problems in children. It sparked a media furore, with The Daily Mail warning: "Additives DO harm children" and launching a campaign to ban all E-numbers, which all made for compelling reading.
Unfortunately, when you study the wider evidence a rather different picture emerges. So-called 'temper tantrum' colourings with catchy names such as Ponceau 4R, Carmoisine, Sunset Yellow, Allura Red and Quinoline Yellow are not endemic in the drink industry as the latest Mintel data revealed exclusively to The Grocer shows.
Anyone who takes the trouble to look around their local supermarket will discover pretty quickly that it's much harder to find products that do contain the offending E-numbers than those that don't - even if, unlike the Daily Mail, you choose to broaden your search beyond the supposedly easy pickings down the confectionery aisle.
And when it comes to confectionery, how interesting that the Daily Mail chose to boost the scare factor by listing almost the entire collection of sweets produced by just one supplier, Swizzels Matlow.
The facts tell a different story. Mintel data reveals that in the first six months of 2007 alone, 24% of product launches in the UK were free from artificial colours and preservatives. In 2006 as a whole, that figure was 17% - demonstrating just how far the industry has come in a very short period.
That still leaves 76%, but it's important to remember that these figures relate to the removal of all additives and preservatives, which some products will never be able to achieve without compromising food safety. Strip these products out of the equation and th e figures are even more impressive. "The UK is far above any other country in terms of reformulation," confirms Mintel editorial director David Jago. "The worldwide average is 11% of new products."
The UK's Food Additives and Ingredients Association agrees the use of artificial colours is not as prevalent as consumers have been led to believe. Mars UK and Cadbury Trebor Bassett have this week vowed to speed up programmes to remove additives. "We have removed four colours mentioned in the study from peanut and chocolate M&M's and will remove E-104 by the end of this year," says a Mars spokesman. "Starburst and Skittles will be free from all artificial colours by the end of the year."
Ribena, Robinsons, Vimto and Panda Pops are just some of the soft drink brands that have recently reformulated and can now boast they contain only natural colours. None contain the preservative sodium benzoate (E211).
Other kids' products that parents tend to assume contain naughty E-numbers but mostly don't, include processed cheese and meat snacks, yoghurts and crisps. Sweets do still throw up a few E-numbers, as do some character-branded cake kits, milkshake mixes and jellies - but these products are in the minority. Much has been done to reformulate the majority with natural alternatives.
Though some Haribo lines do still contain E-numbers, it reformulated its Tangfastics, Kiddies SuperMix and Starmix lines prior to the study and anticipates a total product re-formulation by 2008.
"Rowntrees was the first major brand to remove artificial colours and flavours, two years ago," says Graham Walker, Nestlé UK trade communications manager. "This is what parents most wanted so that is what we did."
Leading industry figures reacted angrily to the national media's slant on the study's findings.
"For the media to say manufacturers aren't doing anything is nonsense," says Julian Hunt, communications director at the Food and Drink Federation. "A lot of the claims that have appeared in the past few days are just not representative of the work the industry has already done, and continues to do, in reformulation."
Negative headlines do nothing to encourage further removal of additives, warns Clare Cheney, director general of the Provision Trade Federation.
"Damage has been done to the reputation of the industry through wholly generalised and somewhat irresponsible reporting," she says. "Consumers reading some of the news articles would be led to believe that the use of these additives is far more prevalent than they actually are. A disservice has been done to the industry."e-numbers on shelf
On the hitlist are: colours Quinoline Yellow (E104), Sunset Yellow (E110), Carmoisine (E122), Ponceau 4R (E124), Allura Red (E129) and preservative sodium benzoate (E211)
Yazoo milkshakes banana and strawberry, McVitie's Jaffa Cakes, Walkers Monster Munch, Walkers Quavers, KP Hula Hoops, KP Skips, McVitie's Mini Cheddars, Fox's Party Rings, Heinz spaghetti hoops range, Panda Pops and juices, Vimto Original, Robinsons fruit squashes, Burton's Jammie Dodgers, Wall's Mini Milk ice lollies, Golden Vale Cheestrings, Capri-Sun juice drinks, Dairylea lunchables range, Bernard Matthews Dinosaur Turkey ham, Sipahh milk flavouring straws (strawberry), Kinder Happy Hippos, Nestlé Munch Bunch Squashums yoghurt, Yoplait Petits Filous fromage frais, Rowntrees range.
Still to clean up:
Haribo Starmix, Swizzels Monster Mix, Barratts Flumps marshmallows, Trident Splash gum (strawberry & lime), Bon Bon Buddies SpongeBob SquarePants yummy jellys selection pack, Hartley's 125g pot jelly (orange, strawberry and blackcurrant), Fanta fruit twist drink, Oasis summer fruits drink, Green's Ben and Jerry's strawberry cake mix (waferettes), Crusha raspberry and strawberry flavour milk shake mixes, Yop strawberry and raspberry drinks, Hubba Bubba strawberry gum, Disney Princess cup cake mix (decorations).