Food additives have long been suspected to be associated with increased hyperactivity in children. Previous studies have focused on children who had been formally diagnosed with ADHD, but not on those children in the general population. In a study recently published in The Lancet, researchers examined the effects of common food additives on children's behavior in both 3-year-olds and 8 or 9-year-olds (doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(07)61306-3).
Over 260 children (137 3-year-olds and 130 8/9-year-olds) completed the seven week study. Every day for a week at a time the children were given a pre-measured juice-flavored drink containing a group of food colorings and sodium benzoate (a preservative). One of three drink mixes were used: one placebo mix, with no food colorings or preservatives; one drink mix with a specific amount of sodium benzoate and food colorings; and a third drink mix with a greater amount of food colorings and the same amount of sodium benzoate as the other test mix. The amounts of both additives were 25% greater in the drinks given to the 8/9-year-olds to account for their larger food intake. For the duration of the study, the children's parents were asked to refrain from feeding their children any other foods that contained the preservative and food colorings used in the study.
The scientists then measured the levels of hyperactive behavior in the children using the combined assessments of trained observers, parental observation, and teacher observation.
All of the children showed increased levels of hyperactive behavior during the weeks they received the drinks containing food colorings and sodium benzoate. However, the younger children showed more hyperactive behavior while receiving the drink containing greater levels of food colorings, while the older children did not. Further, the individual children showed a wide range of effects from the drinks - some only slightly more hyperactive, some much more hyperactive.
The researchers note that it is impossible to assess exactly which compound was causing the hyperactive behavior and call for further study to establish whether the age-related differences in the effects of food coloring on the children's behavior could be replicated.
What this means for you
This study lends strong support to the notion that hyperactivity in children is related to the consumption of artificial food additives. Certainly highly-processed foods aren't that great for you OR your children - stick to fresh foods and you and your children will be healthier. Here are some ideas for snacks for your kids - and yourself.