Food and drinks containing additives linked to behavioural problems in children should carry health warnings similar to those found on medicines, according to experts.

A number of preservatives and colourings, some of which can irritate the skin or cause breathing difficulties, are used in popular brands such as Irn-Bru, Diet Coke, Ribena and Robinsons Orange Squash.

When they are used in medicines, they are required to carry health warnings. But in food and drinks, no such regulations apply.

The Food Commission is calling for the warnings to be enforced on all products containing the chemicals.

Health campaigners yesterday welcomed the call, which came as the Food Standards Agency (FSA) prepared to publish a report expected to confirm a link between additives and temper tantrums, poor concentration, asthma and rashes.

Though the results have not yet been released, they may have explosive consequences for the food industry, as manufacturers might need to reformulate a vast array of products.

Manufacturers point out that additives such as E numbers are currently deemed safe by the FSA.

When used in medicines, warnings are given for artificial colourings such as E102 (tartrazine), E110 (sunset yellow) and E124 (ponceau red) and for preservatives such as E211 (sodium benzoate), E220 (sodium dioxide) and E223 (sodium metabisulphite).

Ian Tokelove, spokesman for the Food Commission, said: "The government and the food industry continue to assure us that all food additives are safe for us to eat, but here we have clear medical guidelines which state that over a dozen common additives should carry a health warning.

"For many people the additives appear to pose no immediate risk, but better labelling would ensure that susceptible adults and children would at least have a chance of identifying, and avoiding, the additives that may cause them harm."

A spokeswoman for the Food and Drink Federation said: "E numbers are given their name because they have been approved at a European level for consumption. Manufacturers and consumers look to the FSA for guidance and the current guidance is that these are safe."

Nick Giovanelli, of the Hyperactive Children Support Group, said: "We believe the way forward is through educating parents about ingredients so that they can make an informed choice about what they are giving their children.

"In an ideal world, the shops and supermarkets would not sell any food or drink containing additives so there would not be a problem. There is only so much information you can fit on a label and it is important not to confuse parents by putting too much on the side of a packet."

He added: "All we know is what parents tell us all the time - that when they take additives out of their children's diet, it improves their health and their behaviour."

A spokeswoman for the FSA in Scotland said: "Research carried out on behalf of the FSA by the University of Southampton is looking at the effects of certain food additives on the behaviour of children.

"The agency is currently working with the scientists who carried out this study to ensure the findings go through a rigorous peer-review process and are published in a scientific journal. Peer review is the process of submitting scientific findings for review by other experts in the field, via publication in a scientific journal.

"If a food additive has an E number this shows it has passed safety tests and been approved for use throughout the European Union. This approval is monitored, reviewed and amended in light of new scientific data."

Last month, Vyvyan Howard, an adviser to the FSA, called on parents and the industry to protect children. He said: "I personally do not feed these sorts of foods to my 15-month-old daughter."

Critics have complained in the past that manufacturers use these additives to make poor-quality cheap food more appealing to the eye.

Some companies have already responded to mounting evidence against additives. Smarties has dropped artificial colours with the result that the blue variety has been axed.

Sainsbury's recently announced a ban on artificial colours and flavours in 120 of its own-label soft drinks. This followed similar moves by Marks & Spencer and the Co-op.