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Monday’s medical myth: food additives cause childhood behavioural disorders

Contemporary processed foods contain many additives, largely to meet consumer expectations for great tasting products that are aesthetically pleasing, all year round. If we didn’t have all these expectations…

The research has found no causal relationship between food additives and behavioural disorders in children. Brit

Contemporary processed foods contain many additives, largely to meet consumer expectations for great tasting products that are aesthetically pleasing, all year round. If we didn’t have all these expectations, many additives could be eliminated from our manufactured foods.

Any component added to food that doesn’t contribute to its nutritional profile can be described as a food additive. And in many cases, these additives allow us to improve the quality, safety and functionality of processed foods.

Take yogurt, for example: milk fermented under ideal conditions will not always form a thickened product, characteristic of what we know as yogurt. To ensure a consistently thickened product that meets customer expectations, pectin is added as a thickening agent, and consumers are happy.

So additives may form part of our everyday diets. But do they affect the behaviour of our kids or cause behavioural problems such as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)?

In two seemingly landmark studies published in 1975 and 1976, Dr Benjamin Feingold drew a link between food additives and behavioural disorders such as hyperkinesis or minimal brain dysfunction (the precursors to ADHD).

This research started decades of debate on the topic and led many parents to switch their kids to the Feingold diet, omitting foods with artificial colours, flavours and preservatives.

But immediately after those publications, various investigations in 1978, 1980 and 1981 refuted the link between childhood hyperactivity and food colouring. The authors concluded that even when administered at high levels, food additives, and particularly food colouring, did not alter kids' behaviour.

Now this is where it starts to get complicated. A 2007 Lancet study involving almost 300 children investigated the effects of six artificial colours and preservatives, known as the Southampton Six:

We still have much to learn about the effects of artificial colours and flavours. moonlightbulb

  • tartrazine yellow (E102)
  • quinolone yellow (E104)
  • sunset yellow (E110)
  • azorubine (E122)
  • ponceau (E124)
  • allura red (E129).

The researchers found the combination of additives increased hyperactivity in toddlers and school-aged children. But there was a key limitation to the study: the researchers were unable to determine the effects of any specific additive; just that one or more of the six additives (perhaps in specific combinations, or specific doses) had a negative affect on behaviour.

Most recently, a review summarising 35 years of research in this area concluded that artificial colours and flavours, including the Southhampton Six, did not cause ADHD. But in a particular subgroup of children with ADHD, a diet free from artificial food colours could improve their symptoms.

These groups of children are younger (more likely to be pre- or primary-school-age rather than in high school), have allergies or have irritability and sleep problems. Parents of children in these groups should therefore consider removing food additives from their child’s diet to test whether their symptoms can be alleviated. This can be attempted in parallel with, or as substitution to, drug-based therapy.

Finally, last year Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) – the government regulatory body responsible for determining a product’s safety – concluded that the scientific evidence, including the Southampton study, did not demonstrate a link between consuming food additives and hyperactivity.

So what should we take from these studies and reviews? We still have much to learn about the effects of artificial colours and flavours, but so far, the research has found no causal relationship between food additives and behavioural disorders in children.

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21 Comments sorted by

  1. Susan McCosker

    Former school teacher

    I've been there and done the paranoid parent thing and avoided all potentially hazardous food additives. My attitude now is to mostly eat whole foods and homemade foods - which we were doing anyway - and if we happen to have food additives occasionally it's not the end of the world. I do, though, read labels and will often choose one sauce, for example, over another based on the ingredients list because, like you say, we still have much to learn.

    In some of the books I've read on the subject, such as 'Fed Up' by Sue Dengate, there is much emphasis made on the example of a child's birthday party where so often the children all go home hyped up. Obviously, this must be the food colourings! My logic would tell me that, much like an adult eating a chocolate bar to give them an energy boost in the mid-afternoon, it is the large amount of sugar that is sending the children crazy.

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    1. James McNabb

      Fund Manager

      In reply to Susan McCosker

      Perhaps the reason children are pretty hyped-up after a birthday party is because ... they've just been at a birthday party.

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  2. Mat Hardy

    Lecturer in Middle East Studies at Deakin University

    I get tired of hearing the food colouring myth from my fellow parents. It would seem to me that diets regularly heavy in food colouring are probably an indicator of generally poorer nutritional choices, socio-economic strata and a host of other lifestyle factors more likely to contribute to behaviour. No child is going to go mental if they eat one red jelly snake.

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    1. Susan McCosker

      Former school teacher

      In reply to Mat Hardy

      While on the whole I do agree with you, I do personally know one child who is genuinely sensitive to some food colourings. Cutting them out was something his parents tried to improve his behaviour and it worked significantly. This family generally eat well and were surprised to find what foods did indeed contain the offending colourings.

      But, yes, the odd red jelly snake shouldn't make a big difference to most children. An overload of processed and coloured foods, however...

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    2. Sean Alexander

      Jack of all

      In reply to Susan McCosker

      This is not surprising. Some individuals are intolerant to all sorts of things. Some things even kill people (peanuts, for example). The science is done on the masses and then (at least for the US FDA) is given a "generally recognised as safe" rating. There is no guarantee of safety with anything really. Just as some parents need to be careful with their kids and peanuts, some parents will have to watch out for certain additives. And like substance, the dose is important. So while one kid can overload on those jelly babies, another might not.

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  3. Antonio Manuel Santos Cristovao

    logged in via Facebook

    Read nature is question of good sense. Is terrible discover that a child can suffer from the contact of her grand mother eighty years ago .And should calm all confident opinions. Sure only the dead.

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  4. David Oakenfull

    food scientist

    Thank you for an interesting article. I’m not convinced, though, that the scientific evidence really justifies your sweeping conclusion that, “ … so far, the research has found no causal relationship between food additives and behavioural disorders in children.” The recent review by Millichap and Yee that you cited is far less dogmatic.

    Food Standards Australia New Zealand would certainly agree with you, but their position simply echoes that of the US Food and Drug Administration. Bernard Weiss…

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    1. Sue Ieraci

      Public hospital clinician

      In reply to David Oakenfull

      The author's closing line sums it up accurately:

      "We still have much to learn about the effects of artificial colours and flavours, but so far, the research has found no causal relationship between food additives and behavioural disorders in children."

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    2. jamie jardine

      Acupuncturist

      In reply to Sue Ieraci

      Yes but the title is misleading;

      Monday’s medical myth: food additives cause childhood behavioural disorders

      This makes it sound as if the science is settled, also 'food additives' is a broad definition..

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    3. Sean Alexander

      Jack of all

      In reply to jamie jardine

      It is a myth. What we can't say is "food addtives DON'T cause childhood behavioural disorders". There's a difference.

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    4. gregory clarke

      data analyst

      In reply to jamie jardine

      There are some pretty loose definitions here. "Any component added to food that doesn’t contribute to its nutritional profile can be described as a food additive." Therefore cannabis or MDMA added to brownies is a food additive which might cause childhood behavioral disorders.

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  5. John Harland

    bicycle technician

    Following the links in the article is not particularly illumunating and certainly not convincing. Minimal data and even less detail of methodology.

    Further, the author's contentions about the cited studies seem more robust than is warranted by the wording of the reports themselves.

    The author also appears to be placing far more trust in negative reports than positive ones without clear reason for the bias.

    All the studies would seem to acknowledge that some food additives - as well as some natural food constituents - do cause problems for some children.

    I would suggest that it might be all children sometimes and some children all of the time. Two of my young relatives reacted progressively less to specific food constituents as they grew older.

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  6. Father Æthelwine

    Priest and researcher.

    Totally unscientific you might say, but a little boy to whom I am related (let the reader understand) now age 6 can be switched on or off some pretty wild behaviour to order by adding or removing red coloured beverages to or from his diet. Boom boom! It could easily be called ADHD, that mental problem invented a few years ago by US psychiatrists at their annual conference. They seem to describe a new mental problem, except their own, every year. Seems simple enough for a parent to follow up naughtiness by checking the diet and trying a change.

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    1. Geoff Davies

      Retired scientist

      In reply to Sue Ieraci

      No, what is unscientific is dismissing examples that contradict the main conclusion.

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    2. Sean Alexander

      Jack of all

      In reply to Father Æthelwine

      There are exceptions to just about every conclusion. We are all different organisms, and it's reasonable that there will be differences. So parents of kids who *might* be sensitive to some substances might have to be more careful or control their diet better- nothing wrong with that. But that's no reason to spread myths that they are "bad" for the whole population. If we did that, then we'd ban peanuts.

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  7. Geoff Davies

    Retired scientist

    This article and many of the comments are too glib.

    When my son was young we took food colourings out of his diet and he calmed down. After any friend's birthday party he come home wired and would bounce off the walls for the next three days.

    That is not just "being hyped", nor is it a sugar high.

    It happened many times, it was a very clear association. I'm sorry, he's grown up now so we can't repeat the experiment for you. But a good researcher would look for such cases.

    My daughter…

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  8. Gabrielle Posetti

    Retired

    I am interested if FSANZ or any other authority mandates that ALL ingredients are cross analysed for their specific and combined chemical outcomes.

    If combinations of food colourings may influence behaviour, might it be that the introduced additives re-act with the prime product, or other additives, to produce an injurious compound?

    Gabrielle Posetti

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  9. Nyssa Millington

    logged in via Facebook

    "Most recently, a review summarising 35 years of research in this area concluded that artificial colours and flavours, including the Southhampton Six, did not cause ADHD. But in a particular subgroup of children with ADHD, a diet free from artificial food colours could improve their symptoms."

    So it doesn't cause ADHD but if you take it out of their diet it will improve their symptoms? Hmmm...yes, I'd say it has an affect on children's behaviour then.

    And the fact that Philip Button has received…

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  10. Patricia Tonks

    Executive Assistant

    Why is it so hard to comprehend that food, even in the form of fruit and vegetables can cause behavioural issues.
    I have had doctors say to me that my daughters behavioural issues are due to deeper underlying issues, and that food bears no consideration in it.
    We were refered to a clinical pychologist, and guess what.....
    FOOD WAS THE ONLY ISSUE FOR BEHAVIOUR... The pychlogist had been observing my child for some time, and told me yesterday that my daughter does not have ADAHD, ADHD, ADD, ODD…

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