Are Preservatives in Food Making Kids Hyper?

A recent study on the impact of food additives on children found that preservatives in food may be one of the causes of hyperactivity in children.

| April/May 2008


Artificial food colorings and preservatives are now thought to be one of the causes of hyperactivity in children.

Photo by iStockphoto/Mike Sonnenberg

A study funded by Britain’s Food Standards Agency has reported what many parents have long suspected: artificial food colorings and preservatives in food are causes of hyperactivity in children. 

Published in the prestigious medical journal The Lancet, the study is landmark in that it demonstrated an impact of food additives on children in general, not just those previously diagnosed with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), as earlier studies had indicated.

Led by Jim Stevenson, a professor of psychology at the University of Southampton, a team of researchers followed a particularly rigorous, double-blind protocol in which about 300 children, half 3-year-olds and half 8- and 9-year-olds, were given one of two “test” drinks or a placebo over a six-week period. The levels of artificial colorings and preservatives in the test drinks were based on the current daily average consumption of food additives by British children. Parents, teachers and an independent group of observers then rated the children’s behavior for factors such as interrupting, restlessness and switching activities.

Although individual responses varied widely among the children, overall the findings “lend strong support for the case that food additives exacerbate hyperactive behaviors (inattention, impulsivity and overactivity) in children at least up to middle childhood,” the authors concluded. Because hyperactive behavior interferes with learning and especially with the improvement of reading skills, food additives may be having an impact on children’s educational development.

Artificial colorings and preservatives such as those tested in the study are found not just in candy but in a wide variety of breakfast cereals, soft drinks and other processed foods, as well as in vitamins, toothpaste and over-the-counter medications. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has responded in the past to public concerns about the safety of food additives by pointing out that because artificial color additives permitted for food use are required to be listed on product labels (e.g., “FD&C yellow #5”), those who wish to avoid consuming them may do so. Whether the recent research will up the ante for the agency remains to be seen. As the British researchers put it, “The implications of these results for the regulation of food additive use could be substantial.”

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9/15/2014 7:39:24 AM

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college student
3/29/2009 1:27:42 PM

Hi, I am a student at UMF and I am making a wikispace page about behavior management in the classroom. I was wondering if I could use your picture of the smiling child to make the page more visually appealing. Please email me at to reply. Thanks

2/13/2009 12:35:27 PM

I know I'm getting old when I am giving one of those when I was your age type of stories. Anyway when I was a kid the kinds of meals we ate as compared to what I see most kids eating today is totally different. I can not believe the amount of candy, chips and pop todays children are eating. I would say easily 100 times the amount I did as a child, maybe even more. I don't want to be mean but a fat kid in my day was almost unheard of. I can remember one chubby boy and always wondered what was wrong with him, I just figured to be like he was there must be some real problem. Well today that kid would be not even be very heavy in comparison to a lot of the kids today. A couple years ago I was doing a lot of bike riding in the summer and during a daily 2 hour ride it was very rare to see any kids outside playing or doing anything. How sad is that the middle of summer and all those kids sitting inside parked in front of a TV. I believe much of the physical and mental problems are related to the diet these kids are eating today. It's so hard for me to watch so many children wasting their childhood, it makes me almost sick when I see some kid laying on the couch watching TV all day like some mind dead zombie. All I can say is Please feed your children the quality meals they deserve, I'll bet if just pop was cut out of all childrens diets you would see an amazing change accross the country. By the way this world of the past I speak of really was not all that long ago, I am 41 even though it sounds like something from 100 years ago It really was not all that long ago. It's hard to believe the changes in eating habits in just the last 30 years.

9/8/2008 1:32:20 PM

After hearing all the connections between preservatives/additives etc. and hyper kids it made me rethink my daughters diet. Does anyone out there know of a website that may possibly list the "safe/healthy" foods/snacks for kids? Thanks

7/16/2008 1:06:13 AM

My son had an allergy to food colourings 30years ago, When we removed them from his diet he became 'normal'

7/15/2008 1:44:04 PM

Most baby food doesn't have dye, but Always read the label just in case. My son had to eat mush for an extra year do to an illness where he couldn't chew and swallow and it didn't seem to hurt him at all. When I was small my cousin was diagnosed ADD and spent his entire childhood drugged out because of it. When I went and visited him and ate the same processed sugary dyed food he did I went nuts, when he came to visit us and ate the natural foods my parents served he was fine. Needless to say I make significant efforts to make sure my kids don't eat junk.

wendy larson
7/8/2008 12:20:17 PM

I wonder how much artificial coloring and preservatives are in baby food. We have a 33 month grandson, severe developmental delays who has just been sort of diagnosed with ADHD and maybe bipolar. Due to his health issues, so far he still only eats baby food, mostly level 2 some level 3. I wonder if this food makes him worse, even though its all he can digest. He has no esophagus and cant digest totally table food. Anyone know anything about the baby food in terms of the colors and preservatives?

7/7/2008 10:39:57 PM

I strongly agree that preservatives and colorings are too much for our growing children's bodies to handle. It was a bit of work, but I stuck to my guns when my daughter was young -- we simply didnt have soda, candy (except chocolate!), fruit "drinks," or other junk food in the house. When she went to a friend's house, I alerted the parents that she was allergic to foods with artificial coloring or HFCS (hi-fructose corn syrup). This was true -- she would be completely out of control, and I warned the pareents that they didnt want to have to deal with a child who was "on" that stuff. I noted HFCS and artificial coloring as allergies for the teacher every year in school, and they (mostly) treated it the same as a peanut allergy or diabetic issue. Sure, there was still junk food around sometimes in school or at friends' houses, but my daughter learned what this stuff did to her, and she told me she didnt like feeling out of control when she ate it.

7/7/2008 7:33:23 PM

It drives me crazy when I hear this stuff mainly because I have 2 children 3 and 6, whose mother refuses to heed anything I ever tell her concerning this subject. It is complete and utter ignorance on her part and is a wedge that has driven us apart. I love my kids dearly and at this point Im not sure what to do. As long as the bills get paid and I dont say anything about this then Im not the "bad guy" Its complete B.S.

d siebert
7/7/2008 12:42:08 PM

I have no doubt this is true; I belong to this website that gives us info regularly; today they send a form letter asking us to send on to our voting representatives and senators. I have sent it to three already. Please read and do the same if you can. We can get some changes made if our voices are heard. An interesting comment is here on why they are making changes in the UK but not in America. Dear Feingold Association Members & Friends, ================================= LET'S LET 'EM HEAR FROM US !! ================================= Last month I told you about the editorial in the British Medical Journal by Andrew Kemp, Professor of Pediatric Allergy and Clinical Immunology at Children' Hospital in Sydney, Australia. Dr. Kemp maintained that a diet without artificial colorings, etc., should not be considered "alternative." Rather, he said, a dye-free, preservative-free diet should be part of standard treatment for children with ADHD. The McCann study was published last fall, showing that even "normal" children exhibit hyperactive symptoms and difficulty concentrating when exposed to a modest amount of food dyes and a preservative. Almost immediately, and in response to a strong media campaign, the big supermarket chains in England fell over each other competing to see who would be the fastest to get the additives out of their house brands before the end of the year. Now, with editorials and articles in prestigious medical journals like the BMJ supporting the McCann research, the big multinational companies (Mars candies, McDonalds, Kellogg's, Kraft etc) are coming around -- in England, anyway. Is it fair that these companies -- these AMERICAN companies -- will color their candy and cereal with safe natural colorings to sell in Europe, while continuing to dump their trashy candy and cereal co

7/7/2008 9:06:22 AM

I have strongly believed this to be true already. I can definitely see a difference in my son if he has a day with no food dyes and preservatives and a day that he eats food with the dyes and preservatives. Red 40 being the worst for him. He is out of control when he has dyes and preservatives. He can't focus, doesn't listen, get's into trouble a lot more. If he has a day where he has had all natural home canned foods and farm raised meats where there are no dyes and preservatives he rarely gets into trouble and is overall fun to be around. I strongly urge parents who think this may be a problem to eliminate all dyes and preservatives from the childs diet for a week and see if there is an improvement, you may notice a different child that is a joy to be around. It takes more time to avoid the convenience foods and the wonderful candy and kids drinks that is pounded into our children's heads on tv but it is definitely worth it. Just wanted to share my experience and I hope it helps someone.

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