Food Additives -- Do They Cause Hyperactivity?

Dr. Bauchner


Journal Watch. 2007;6(11) 

This study supports a link between food additives in the diet and hyperactive behavior.

Concerns that artificial food colors and additives cause hyperactivity have existed for decades. In a 6-week, double-blind, placebo-controlled crossover trial, U.K. investigators randomly assigned 153 children aged 3 years and 144 children aged 8 to 9 to receive two different fruit drinks containing additives (mix A and mix B) and a placebo drink for 1 week each. Both mixes contained sodium benzoate preservative (45 mg); the kinds and amounts of food coloring differed in the two mixes. Younger children received 300 mL per day, and older children received 625 mL per day.

A single measure of hyperactive behavior was based on weekly parent and teacher ratings and a computerized test of attention in the older children. Compared with placebo, mix A had a significant negative effect on the behavior of the younger children, and mix B had a significant negative effect on the behavior of the older children. Results did not change when analyses were restricted to children who consumed more than 85% of the drinks.

The authors estimate that both mixes, in the amount given to the younger children, contained the amount of food coloring equivalent to that in two 56-g bags of candy; the amount in mix B was equal to about four bags for the older children. These results will likely fuel parental concern that food additives, such as tartrazine, sunset yellow, and allura red, either cause or increase behaviors consistent with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. The study lends credence to such concerns although it certainly doesn´t tell us whether food additives are a major contributor to ADHD. A more meticulous study is unlikely.

— Howard Bauchner, MD

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