Food Additives and ADHD: The Debate Continues
The link between food additives and ADHD has been the subject of debate for decades. Food additives are believed to cause adverse behavioral reactions in children, like hyperactivity. It is not clear whether one particular food additive is to blame, or whether the adverse reactions are caused by a mixture of food additives. This article explores whether food additives do indeed cause ADHD.
The research that sparked the debate mentioned above that has lagged on for decades was Dr. Benjamin’s Feingold’s study in 1975 and 1976 respectively. He drew a link between food additives and behavioral disorders seen as ADHD precursors. This research resulted in the Feingold diet which abstained from foods with flavors, preservatives, and artificial coloring.
Decades later, a study at the University of Southampton investigated the relationship mentioned above. The participants were 300 children aged 3 and 8. There was a significant increase in ADHD type and impulsive behavior in both age groups. The children also lost concentration.
According to the research, at least 6.6% of children in the UK between ages 3 and 12 suffer from ADHD. This figure could be reduced by 30% if additives were banned.
This research resulted in the FSA (UK Food Standards Agency) recommending the prohibition of 6 food additives, popularly known as the Southampton Six. Here is a list of the banned additives:
Ponceau 4R (E124)
Allura Red (E129)
Sunset Yellow (E110)
Quinoline Yellow (E104)
They were found in sweets, soft drinks, and biscuits. Food and drinks are also supposed to have clear labeling with regards to their effect on children’s behavior and attention.
The elephant in the room
Two complementary studies. They, however, did not solve the problem of whether the ADHD symptoms were caused by a particular flavor or a combination of flavors.
A step forward
A more recent review, after 35 years of study, revealed that a diet free from artificial flavors improved ADHD symptoms, but only in a particular subgroup of children with ADHD.
The particular group of children was younger (pre- or primary age) and had sleep problems, allergies or irritability.
The controversy continues
According to a study published by the NCBI (National Center for Biotechnology Information), previous studies were bedeviled by flaws in sample selection, outcome measures, blinding and diagnosis. According to the article, food additives do affect children, but not only those with diagnosed ADHD. It is, therefore, a public health issue, rather than an ADHD one.
Another article on the same site published a study involving 153 children aged 3 and 144 aged 8 or 9. The children were subjected to a beverage with sodium benzoate as the preservative. There were also two AFCA (artificial food color and additive) mixes. The children drank the challenge drink and one of the two AFCA mixes or a placebo combination. Both the artificial color and preservative resulted in increased hyperactivity in the 3-year-old group, just as it did in the older 8/9-year-old group. Note that these children were a sample from the general population, not children living with ADHD.
In another six week study involving 200 children in Melbourne, Australia, the parents of 150 children reported behavioral improvement when their children were on a diet free from synthetic coloring. On the re-introduction of foods with artificial coloring, there was behavioral deterioration.
So, what is the truth?
The truth behind the causal relationship between ADHD and food additives continues to be marred by contradictory scientific studies. However, amidst all the confusion, there seems to be an agreement that food additives do affect people’s health and more particularly children.
Any child can be affected by preservatives and food colorings. It is, therefore, the parent’s responsibility to choose what to feed their kids with. In the UK, six additives have already been banned. It may be wise to avoid those. But again, it is all at your discretion.
Since ADHD goes on into adulthood, who knows whether food additives could have even worse effects or none? If food additives affect children in the general population, how safe are adults?
All in all
The debate on whether there is a causal relationship between food additives and ADHD is not likely to end soon. Science is yet to solve this dilemma. As we wait for a major scientific breakthrough to address this problem for us, in the meantime, it is only wise to choose health. Another thing to do is to take vitamins for ADHD if your children are eating any processed food.