Food Additives Cause Problem Behavior in Children
Eating foods with artificial colors and preservatives can cause negative behavior changes in children, according to a recent study published in the Archives of Diseases in Childhood (2004;89:506–11).
Some doctors, parents, and others have long believed that artificial food additives play a role in behavior disorders such as attention deficit–hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). ADHD—a condition characterized by restlessness, hyperactivity, impulsiveness, and inattention—is estimated to affect 3 to 6% of school-aged children in the United States. Several studies have found that food additives such as artificial colors, flavors, and preservatives can contribute to the symptoms of ADHD, but other studies have found no such link. Atopy, the name given to a group of chronic allergic conditions, such as asthma and eczema, has been found in some studies to be more common in children with behavior problems than among children without behavior problems. This has led to speculation that allergies, perhaps to foods and food additives, could trigger the symptoms of ADHD.
The current study involved 277 three-year-old children who were evaluated and categorized as follows: (1) hyperactive with atopy; (2) hyperactive without atopy; (3) not hyperactive with atopy; and, (4) not hyperactive and without atopy. All of the children were placed on an additive-free diet for the first week of the study. During the second week they were randomly assigned to supplement their additive-free diet with either a fruit drink containing multiple artificial colors and sodium benzoate (a preservative), or a fruit drink containing no additives daily for one week. The test was then repeated with the additive and additive-free groups reversed. Parents monitored their children’s behavior daily, using scales to rate inattention, impulsiveness, and hyperactivity. Evaluations were also done in a clinic at the end of each week of the study.
Testing at the clinic showed no significant changes in behavior in any of the groups of children over the course of the study. Parental ratings of behavior, however, showed a definite effect of the food additives. There was a significant reduction in hyperactive behavior during the week the additive-free diet was consumed, and a significantly greater increase in hyperactive behavior with the drink containing additives than with the additive-free drink. These changes noted by parents were similar in all groups, regardless of their hyperactivity and atopy status at the beginning of the study.
The results of this study support the belief that artificial food additives can contribute to behavior problems in preschool children. Furthermore, these behavior changes can be observed equally in children identified as having ADHD and in children with no identified behavior disorders. Atopy does not appear to predict reactions to food additives.
It is noteworthy that significant behavior changes were not found in the controlled clinical setting but rather by the parents during normal daily activities, suggesting that future studies should also consider the observations of family members. The effect of food additives on behaviors in older children and adults, with and without ADHD, should be evaluated in future studies.
Maureen Williams, ND, received her bachelor’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania and her Doctorate of Naturopathic Medicine from Bastyr University in Seattle, WA. She has a private practice in Quechee, VT, and does extensive work with traditional herbal medicine in Guatemala and Honduras. Dr. Williams is a regular contributor to Healthnotes Newswire.
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