by Marion Nestle
Sep 7 2007

Food Additives and Hyperactivity–Again!

I thought we were done with food additives as a cause of hyperactivity in kids years ago, but here it comes again. A new and well controlled study in The Lancet, funded by the British Food Standards Agency (which presumably has no axe to grind), reports higher average levels of hyperactivity in young children drinking a mix of sodium benzoate (a preservative) and food colors. For why these results surprise me, take a look at the Wikipedia entry for the Feingold Diet, the additive-free diet developed decades ago to prevent hyperactivity in kids. The first Wikipedia paragraph says it all:

“The Feingold diet is a food elimination program developed by Ben F. Feingold, MD to treat hyperactivity. It eliminates a number of artificial colors and artificial flavors, aspartame, three petroleum-based preservatives, and (at least initially) certain salicylates. There has been much debate about the efficacy of this program. Some mainstream medical practitioners deny that it is of any value, while other medical practitioners, as well as many people living with ADHD and parents of children with ADHD, claim that it is effective in the management of ADHD as well as a number of other behavioral, physical and neurological conditions. The debate has continued for more than 30 years, involving not only consumers and physicians, but scientists, politicians, and the pharmaceutical and food industries.”

After this excellent beginning, the article gets so muddled that the editors warn: “The neutrality of this article is disputed.” Indeed. Until now, my reading of the science was that the more carefully the studies were done, the less benefit they showed. Even the best studies showed wide individual differences–most kids were unaffected by removing additives but a small percentage seemed to get better. This made the studies especially subject to biased interpretation.

This new study seems well done but again shows large individual differences, so expect the debates to continue. In the meantime, it’s good to remember that color additives go into processed foods to cover up flaws and make them look attractive. Kids don’t need to be eating highly processed foods. The study is another good reason to feed kids plenty of fruits, vegetables, and other minimally processed foods.

Here’s what today’s New York Times has to say about the study.