Parents will be alerted this week to ensure children avoid artificial additives in drinks, sweets and processed foods because of explosive evidence about the effects on behaviour.

A plausible connection to tantrums, poor concentration and slow progress at school is understood to have been found in a study to be published by the Government's Food Standards Agency.

Food industry leaders have been summoned to a meeting with the FSA today for a briefing on the research and its implications.

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The findings, from Southampton University, raise the possibility of parents suing food manufacturers in the same way tobacco firms have been pursued by cancer victims in the U.S.

The study could also mean the industry will have to reformulate a vast array of children's products.

Some supermarkets and manufacturers have pre-empted the study by announcing bans on suspect additives in sweets, cakes and soft drinks.

The FSA has cloaked the findings in secrecy but its experts are expected to tell parents the only way to avoid any risk is to cut the additives from their children's diet.

Health campaigners, however, believe a more stringent legal ban is necessary.

The risk of allergic reactions, such as breathing problems and asthma, from certain additives was established more than 20 years ago.

There have been similar concerns-about the impact on brain development but nothing strong enough to convince Whitehall's public health experts.

The Southampton research is expected to support the fears of Sally Bunday of the Hyperactive Children's Support Group.

She said the reaction to the artificial chemicals could be "horrendous in terms of mood swings with crying, screaming, inability to sleep".

She added: "There can also be physical reactions such as difficulty in breathing and skin rashes".

The additives may help explain the rise in Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder in children.

Some 359,000 prescriptions for ADHD prevention drugs are issued each year, up 90-fold since the early 1990s.

Critics of food additives believe this disruptive behaviour can be cured by a return to natural food, rather than drugs.

Vyvyan Howard, professor of bioimaging at Ulster University and an adviser to the FSA, called for the additives to be removed on a precautionary basis.

He said: "They have no nutritional value, so why put them in?

"There are very tight restrictions banning these additives from foods designed for children under the age of one. But why stop there?

"Children's brains and nervous systems are developing beyond the age of one."

Some companies have already acted.

Marks & Spencer is removing all artificial colours and flavours from 99 per cent of products by the end of the year.

Asda is doing the same with 9,000 own-label items, while Sainsbury's, Tesco and the Co- op have announced similar action.

Nestle Rowntree, which makes Smarties, has dropped artificial colours with the result the blue variety has been axed.

The colours, tested on groups of three-year-olds and eight-to-nine year olds by the Southampton researchers, were tartrazine (E102), ponceau 4R (E124), sunset yellow (E110), carmoisine (E122), quinoline yellow (E104) and allura red AC (E129).

The team also looked at the effect of the preservative sodium benzoate (E211), which is commonly used in soft drinks.

The Food & Drink Federation, which speaks for manufacturers, said the colours and chemicals used by the industry were proven to be safe.

"The use of food additives is strictly regulated under European law," it said.

"They must be approved as safe by the appropriate European scientific committee before they can be used."