Are Preservatives in Food Making Kids Hyper?

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Photo by iStockphoto/Mike Sonnenberg
Artificial food colorings and preservatives are now thought to be one of the causes of hyperactivity in children.

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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