Last year, a group of Southampton University researchers stirred public opinion with a study that suggested the use of certain food additives may cause child hyperactivity, based on tests of 300 children.
Researchers made a link between hyperactive behaviour and the substances used to colour sweets, drinks and medicines.
But the European Food Safety Authority has decided flaws in the way the research was drawn up mean it does not offer definitive evidence of a risk to the general population and means there is no legal reason for manufacturers to remove the suspect additives.
The safety authority said it had concluded with the help of experts in behaviour, child psychiatry, allergy and statistics that the study “provided limited evidence that the mixtures of additives tested had a small effect on the activity and attention of some children”.
It said in a statement the findings of the British study could not be used as a basis for changing the acceptable daily intake (ADI) of the respective food colours or sodium benzoate.
The Parma-based agency cited “considerable uncertainties, such as the lack of consistency and relative weakness of the effect and the absence of information on the clinical significance of the behavioural changes observed” of the study.
The findings from the British study could be relevant for specific individuals sensitive to food additives in general or to food colours in particular, but is was “not possible at present to assess how widespread such sensitivity may be in the general population”, it said.
The additives analysed by the British researchers were Tartrazine (E102), Quinoline Yellow (E104), Sunset Yellow FCF (E110), Ponceau 4R (E124), Allura Red AC (E129), Carmoisine (E122) and sodium benzoate (E211).
EFSA said one of its scientific panels was re-evaluating the safety of all food colours authorised in the European Union on a case-by-case basis and the colours used in the study were included in its review.
The decision has appalled British campaigners who insist that millions of youngsters will be left exposed to harm. University of Southampton researchers had warned the additives “damage the psychological health” of children.
Products known to include the additives include Cadbury Creme Eggs, Fanta and a popular children’s medicine Calpol.
The campaigning food and health group, Sustain, condemned the European authority’s stance and called on Britain to impose a unilateral ban.
Campaigns director Richard Watts said: “No one now disputes these artificial additives pose a threat to children’s health and well being. Given EFSA has let down consumers, our own FSA must now act.”