Sunday, March 16, 2008

Food additives and hyperactivity in kids


A small European study that showed food additives could lead to hyperactivity in kids has been proven wrong. More specifically, it hasn't proved to be accurate enough to warrant a change in kids' diets.

Reuters is reporting, the European Food Safety Authority found "limited evidence that the mixtures of additives tested had a small effect on the activity and attention of some children."

"The additives analyzed by the UK researchers were Tartrazine (E102), Quinoline Yellow (E104), Sunset Yellow FCF (E110), Ponceau 4R (E124), Allura Red AC (E129), Carmoisine (E122) and sodium benzoate (E211)."

However, there may still be a connection between these food additives and hyperactivity in kids who have allergies to them, but is was "not possible at present to assess how widespread such sensitivity may be in the general population."

It would be nice to know if there is something tangible causing all this hyperactivity in kids. Too bad this study didn't help out us parents!

-NewsAnchorMom Jen


Diane Vespa said...

Dr. Sears advises avoiding all foods that contain any dyes (usually indicated by a # sign and/or color in the ingrediants list)

Maria said...

Why look for an excuse? Has our definition of hyperactive changed? Maybe the kids are just being kids? Perhaps the problem is that our (parents') expectations have changed? said...

I think my son, in particular, has a genetic predisposition to be a little hyperactive. It runs on my husband's side. I don't really think there's a cause outside of that, but it would be nice on certain days if there was a way to control it naturally. I will keep dreaming!
I do wonder if parent's expectations have changed. Maybe so. Our lifestyles have certainly changed by what Dr. Day said in the "after school activities" blog. Interesting... said...

Here is some additional information from Jane Hersey. She says she is the National Director of the Feingold Association of the US and author of “Why Can't My Child Behave?” and “Healthier Food For Busy People.” I don't know her, but she seems to have more information on this study. I just got this as a email, so I have no idea about its accuracy, but she seems to know what she's talking about:

A study composed of nearly 300 children is not small. This was one of the larger ones.

“...that food additives could lead to hyperactivity in kids has been proven wrong.”

This did not disprove the link between food additives and hyperactivity. It showed that a modest amount of food dye could bring about hyperactive behavior and attention problems in “regular” children, i.e., those who had not previously shown signs of ADHD. While many of us have long known this, the study was the first to show it objectively.

“More specifically, it hasn't proved to be accurate enough to warrant a change in kids' diets.”

The data was accurate, but it did not provide information on exactly which additives were responsible for the behavior/learning problems seen, and the degree of change seemed too limited to warrant an outright ban.

“ evidence that the mixtures of additives tested had a small effect on the activity and attention of some children.”

That's true. Why was the effect small?

1. This was not a population of ADHD children, who are likely to be the most vulnerable to additives.

2. The amount of dyes the children ingested was very small. They received: 25 mg in beverage A and 62.4 mg in Beverage B.

The 25 mg is approximately the amount of red dye in one glass of a drink made from a powdered mix. But to dye an opaque food like frosting you need about 150 mg to color just one tablespoon of the frosting.

In 1977 the National Academy of Science conducted a study of 12,000 people and found that 99% of them ate up to an average of 327.6 mg of dye per day. (And yet, the early studies on diet and ADHD used only 27 mg per day.)

The amount of dye used in the United States today has increased since that time, and children's foods in particular are most likely to contain greater amounts of dye. Not only do we know that there has been a considerable increase in the past 30 years just by taking a look at children's food, medicine, toothpaste, etc. but we know that much more dye is being produced.

In their meta-analysis of 15 studies supporting the diet-hyperactivity link, Harvard and Columbia researchers wrote, “At the very least, regulators should track consumption of artificial food colorings; we know only that domestic production of food dyes quadrupled between 1955 and 1998.”

3. Other additives were not considered. Additives such as artificial flavorings and the preservatives BHA, BHT, TBHQ have been found to trigger behavior/learning problems. The typical child can ingest multiple additives in a single mouthful of food. These may include the above chemicals as well as MSG, aspartame, high fructose corn syrup, nitrites, calcium propionate and sulfites.

Given the limitations of the study it is remarkable that there was a clear difference in the behavior and learning ability of so many of the children.

While it is understandable that the EFSA did not believe it was warranted to ban the additives on the basis of this one study, it would be wise for them to consider the many studies that show the damaging health effects of food dyes.

Earlier research (that used only one dye) found that additive caused many problems in animals, including:

DNA damage

reproductive damage

breast cancer

sperm abnormalities

physical and behavioral toxicity

immune suppression

Human studies show


depletion of zinc in some children

behavior problems

learning problems

asthma and other respiratory problems

More recently, Lau et al showed that when two additives are combined the damage to nerve cells is multiplied by 4 (blue dye and MSG) and by 7 (yellow dye and aspartame).

A more accurate evaluation of food additives and ADHD would use the type of food and non-food products children actually consume. That would include: artificially colored, flavored, and preserved: toothpaste, mouthwash, vitamins, medicine, beverages, cereals, candy, cookies, mac & cheese, and pretty much all of the processed foods many of them are eating.

Most people believe that food dyes must be tested and found safe before they are allowed to be used in our food. However, this is not the case. Food dyes are considered “innocent until proven guilty.” It's a nice concept for criminal justice, but not for consumer protection.

When a dye is found to be a carcinogen and is required by law to be banned, but this doesn't always happen. Even the FDA was unable to get rid of the cancer-causing Red No. 3 and it's still in our food. (Politics always trumps science.)

I do have a few suggestions for the regulatory agencies in the US and Europe:

Crack down on the illegal practice of drug companies using banned dyes in medicine.

Require companies to disclose the amount of dye in a product.

Stop using the polite euphemism (on their web site in their literature) of “man-made” to describe these chemicals. The dyes are synthesized from crude oil, and most of them originate in petroleum refineries in China.

I apologize for the fact that this is so long; I have been writing about this topic since 1975 and have been as brief as possible. I didn't want to make it even longer by including citations, but will be glad to provide them if you like. You can find them at

The American Academy of Pediatrics evaluated this study (McCann, Lancet Sept 2007) as well as the Harvard/Columbia meta-anaylsis and have been impressed enough to reverse their long held position regarding the use of diet for ADHD. They now consider a diet eliminating these additives to be a valid option.


Jane Hersey

National Director

Feingold Association of the US

author of “Why Can't My Child Behave?”

and “Healthier Food For Busy People”

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