Food Additives May Worsen ADD in Children

You may have heard the saying, “Just because you are paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you.” There ought to be a similar formulations for other forms of distress, such as, “Just because you are neurotic doesn’t mean there aren’t good reasons to be worried.”

Today the neurotics got affirmation that widely held fears about the casual use of chemicals in food may be warranted.

A small scale study indicated that food additives can heighten the symptoms of attention deficit disorder in some children. Given that ADD is a new yet widely diagnosed ailment, one has to wonder whether it is due either to behavior that was once considered normal suddenly being pathologized, or the result of environmental change. If food additives play a role, that would lend weight to the view that this is a bona fide ailment, rather than children being subject to increasingly unrealistic behavior requirements.

From the BBC:

Cocktails of food additives in children’s diets may be responsible for hyperactive behaviour, say researchers.
A Food Standards Agency study on 300 randomly selected children found hyperactivity rose after a drink containing additive combinations.

The FSA said very hyperactive children might benefit from fewer additives, the Lancet reported.

But experts said that drugs rather than diet changes could improve behaviour more in the most severe cases.

Between 5% and 10% of school-age children suffer some degree of ADHD – attention deficit hyperactivity disorder – researchers suggest, with symptoms such as impulsiveness, inability to concentrate and excessive activity.

More boys than girls are diagnosed with the condition, and children with ADHD can struggle academically, often behaving poorly in school.

Food colourings and other chemicals added to processed foods have long been blamed by many for making the disorder worse.

The Food Standards Agency paid for Southampton University researchers to examine whether giving additives to a group of ordinary three-year-olds and eight or nine-year-olds had any effect on their behaviour.

The children were randomly given one of three drinks, either a potent mix of colourings and additives, a drink that roughly matched the average daily additive intake of a child of their age, or a “placebo” drink which had no additives.

Their hyperactivity levels were measured before and after the drink was taken. Mix “A”, with the high levels of additives, had a “significantly adverse” effect compared with the inactive placebo drink.

The older children showed some adverse effects after the second, less potent mix, although the response varied significantly from child to child.

Lead researcher Jim Stevenson said the study showed that certain mixtures of artificial food colours, alongside sodium benzoate, a preservative used in ice cream and confectionary, were linked to increases in hyperactivity.

He added: “However, parents should not think that simply taking these additives out of food will prevent hyperactive disorders.

“We know that many other influences are at work but this at least is one a child can avoid.”

The results of the research meant a change in official advice from the FSA, which has already met representatives of the UK food industry to talk about its implications.

The researchers pointed out that while artificial colours might be removed from foods easily, the removal of sodium benzoate would cause far more problems for the industry.

Julian Hunt, from Food and Drink Federation, said that the tests did not represent how the additives were used normally.

He said: “Manufacturers are very aware of consumer sensitivities about the use of additives in food and drink products. It is important to reassure consumers that the Southampton study does not suggest there is a safety issue with the use of these additives.”

However, Andrea Bilbow, from ADHD support group ADDISS, said that most parents of children with ADHD had tried diet changes, and while more than half had reported some improvement, this tended to be modest when compared with the effect of medication.

She said: “In some respects the question of food additives is a little bit of a red herring.

“While in some cases, a poor diet could make ADHD even worse, a better diet is not going to make it much better.”

And Dr Paul Illing, of the Royal Society of Chemistry, raised questions about the validity of the study.

“Extrapolating from the small study population to the general public is very difficult.”

If you aren’t keen about the diet hypothesis, New Scientist reports on a long-term study that links poor attention spans to too much TV viewing at an early age.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email


  1. Anonymous

    Dear Yves,

    We have two children who are both taking medication for ADHD, and we have tried to change their diet with no luck. I do not think that this is as big an issue as some make it to be. I do have to wonder if the television exposure may aggravate the condition, though. I think that teachers are more aware of the problem today and are quick to mention to parents that drugs may help their children. The necessity for medication for our daughter was quite evident, but it was the feedback from teachers that convinced me that my son also needed medication. It was quite a struggle to convince me that my children needed drugs to function well, but they did, and now they benefit from this.

    ADHD raises important questions about what is good drug taking and bad drug taking. Is it ok for my child to take ritilan to function in class, but not ok for an athlete to take a performance enhancing drug to function better on the playing field? I think not, but it does raise important questions.


Comments are closed.