Some Food Additives Raise Hyperactivity, Study Finds
By ELISABETH ROSENTHAL
Common food additives and colorings can increase hyperactive behavior in a broad range of children, a study being released today found.
It was the first time researchers conclusively and scientifically confirmed a link that had long been suspected by many parents. Numerous support groups for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder have for years recommended removing such ingredients from diets, although experts have continued to debate the evidence.
But the new, carefully controlled study shows that some artificial additives increase hyperactivity and decrease attention span in a wide range of children, not just those for whom overactivity has been diagnosed as a learning problem.
The new research, which was financed by Britain’s Food Standards Agency and published online by the British medical journal The Lancet, presents regulators with a number of issues: Should foods containing preservatives and artificial colors carry warning labels? Should some additives be prohibited entirely? Should school cafeterias remove foods with additives?
After all, the researchers note that overactivity makes learning more difficult for children.
“A mix of additives commonly found in children’s foods increases the mean level of hyperactivity,” wrote the researchers, led by Jim Stevenson, a professor of psychology at the University of Southampton. “The finding lends strong support for the case that food additives exacerbate hyperactive behaviors (inattention, impulsivity and overactivity) at least into middle childhood.”
In response to the study, the Food Standards Agency advised parents to monitor their children’s activity and, if they noted a marked change with food containing additives, to adjust their diets accordingly, eliminating artificial colors and preservatives.
But Professor Stevenson said it was premature to go further. “We’ve set up an issue that needs more exploration,” he said in a telephone interview.
In response to the study, some pediatricians cautioned that a diet without artificial colors and preservatives might cause other problems for children.
“Even if it shows some increase in hyperactivity, is it clinically significant and does it impact the child’s life?” said Dr. Thomas Spencer, a specialist in Pediatric Psychopharmacology at Massachusetts General Hospital.
“Is it powerful enough that you want to ostracize your kid? It is very socially impacting if children can’t eat the things that their friends do.”
Still, Dr. Spencer called the advice of the British food agency “sensible,” noting that some children may be “supersensitive to additives” just as some people are more sensitive to caffeine.
The Lancet study focused on a variety of food colorings and on sodium benzoate, a common preservative. The researchers note that removing this preservative from food could cause problems in itself by increasing spoilage. In the six-week trial, researchers gave a randomly selected group of several hundred 3-year-olds and of 8- and 9-year-olds drinks with additives — colors and sodium benzoate — that mimicked the mix in children’s drinks that are commercially available. The dose of additives consumed was equivalent to that in one or two servings of candy a day, the researchers said. Their diet was otherwise controlled to avoid other sources of the additives.
A control group was given an additive-free placebo drink that looked and tasted the same.
All of the children were evaluated for inattention and hyperactivity by parents, teachers (for school-age children) and through a computer test. Neither the researchers nor the subject knew which drink any of the children had consumed.
The researchers discovered that children in both age groups were significantly more hyperactive and that they had shorter attention spans if they had consumed the drink containing the additives. The study did not try to link specific consumption with specific behaviors. The study’s authors noted that other research suggested that the hyperactivity could increase in as little as an hour after artificial additives were consumed.
The Lancet study could not determine which of the additives caused the poor performances because all the children received a mix. “This was a very complicated study, and it will take an even more complicated study to figure out which components caused the effect,” Professor Stevenson said.
This quote was quite shocking: “Even if it shows some increase in hyperactivity, is it clinically significant and does it impact the child’s life?” said Dr. Thomas Spencer, a specialist in Pediatric Psychopharmacology at Massachusetts General Hospital. “Is it powerful enough that you want to ostracize your kid? It is very socially impacting if children can’t eat the things that their friends do.”
Hmm...Dr. Spencer must not be a father. Or someone that sees that our children need to be healthier, that's we got a crisis on our hands. When you think you've seen it all, I found this quote very surprising and disturbing. Smoking used to be (still is?) cool, does he think us parents should weigh the social pros and cons of that as well? I think we've come a long way with education and smoking. We need to do this with food as well. Food marketers will rise to the occasion and quickly provide what people are willing to buy.
We need to educate parents and schools about healthy food choices. After all, we now have a federal mandate, the Wellness Policy that should be enforced across the country now, beginning last year. Economics plays a role in how quickly and effectively change will happen. Health has a lot of competition - better roads, better curriculum, classroom facilities, the list goes on.
The biggest obstacle I used to think were parents unwilling to stand up and make healthier choices, letting go of Betty Crockerish childhood memories. Standing up to their own parents that give their kids candy every chance they get. Deciding to pay more than $2.50 for their child's school lunch, when they go and spend $8 to $10 on lunch themselves.
But yet again we must fight our pediatricians? I am beyond disgusted.
Who would've thought someone would be FOR additivies and preservatives?
On a personal note, my daughter Sydney experienced the cafeteria for the first time this year, as a fresh 1st grader. She did come home in tears the first few days, complaining that most of her friends bought lunch. She wanted to eat what everyone else ate. I can't blaim her and I empathize. I went through the same thing with Leo, and today he is confident and fine with it.
Some kids brought their lunch, but Sydney's food was different - leftover Mexican Shredded Chicken over brown rice, Pasta Salad with lots of veggies, or a turkey wrap. Real food with no additives or preservatives. Sydney eats like Leo does because it's healthier. Gluten isn't good for anyone.
I reminded Sydney what she knew already, processed food versus whole,organic, and how important healthy food is. She got it. I told her to explain what she's eating, that her lunch from home is healthier than the cafeteria. Most moms would have to agree in this town, and I do know that this isn't always the case....In many places across the country, school lunches and breakfasts are IT, the only food a child will get. How sad is that! I am indeed happy that we have these programs for those reasons.
I told Sydney to say "So?" if people make fun of her lunch. And to stand up for herself. A tall order I know, but she didn't take any crap. She's a confident girl, more than Leo, so I know she got her point across and she felt better about her "difference".
She's a popular girl, so guess what has happened the following week? Some of the girls started bringing THEIR lunch that contained fresh fruit and other items that Sydney had been bringing. Two other girls brought strawberries for classroom snack, just like Sydney. All 3 girls made it cool! Now why can't more parents advocate for these scenarios, making healthy food the food of choice, the cool food?
We went out for icecream the second day of school to celebrate. My point (hopefully) that she does get to have unhealthy food too. I don't want them to feel deprived. A delicate balance of what is everyday food and what is a treat. I'm wingin' it here, but so far things have worked out. I temporarily won the cafeteria battle, but lost the classroom battle - Syd's teacher uses chocolate as a reward. Candy candy candy! It never ends.
Food doesn't have to be the focus of all celebrations. At least junky food doesn't! There are many ways to celebrate birthdays and holidays without food. Here are some links for people that may be interested:
Alternatives to Food Rewards. Connecticut State Department of Education, 2004.
Classroom Party Ideas. University of California Cooperative Extension Ventura County.
Healthy Fundraising. Connecticut State Department of Education, 2005.
Let’s Party: Party Ideas for School and Home. West Virginia Department of Education, 1994.
Let’s Play: Innovative Games and Activities for Kids. West Virginia Department of Education,