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Food Additives May Affect Kids' Hyperactivity

Food Coloring and Preservatives May Increase Hyperactivity in Children, but Evidence Not Conclusive

WebMD Health News

May 24, 2004 -- Artificial food colorings, preservatives, and other additives may play a role in increasing hyperactive behavior among young children, a new study suggests.

British researchers found removing food additives from the diet of a group of 3-year-olds caused a reduction in the children's hyperactive behavior reported by their parents. And when the food colorings and preservatives were added back into the children's diets, the parents reported an increase in hyperactivity.

Based on these parental reports of behavioral changes, researchers estimate that if the current 15% of children thought to have hyperactivity-related behavior problems were to go on an additive-free diet, the prevalence could be reduced to 6%.

However, although the parents reported significant changes in hyperactive behavior, the study showed no significant differences on clinical tests of hyperactivity related to the food additives.

"In the absence of the objective tests showing any effect, we have to be slightly dubious about that magnitude of that effect," says researcher John Warner, professor of child health at the University of Southampton.

But if these findings can be confirmed by further studies, researchers say removal of food additives from children's diets could help reduce their long-term risk of behavioral problems.

The Food Additive-Hyperactivity Link

Researchers say it's not the first study to come up with mixed results when looking at the relationship between artificial food additives and hyperactivity.

The notion that food could have an effect on children's behavior became popularized in the 1970s by allergist Benjamin Feingold, MD, who published the Feingold diet. He advocated a diet free of more than 300 food additives to treat hyperactivity.

Since then, many studies have looked at the issue, but most have failed to substantiate Feingold's claims or have shown only a small benefit in learning and behavioral problems in children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

"When everyone thinks of hyperactivity and diet, they automatically think now of food additives and colors and the Feingold approach," says Roseanne Schnoll, PhD, RD, associate professor of nutrition at Brooklyn College of the City University of New York. "Even though there is merit to it, none of the studies have backed it up tremendously."

But what Warner says is unique about this study is that they found an effect of food additives on non-hyperactive children as well as those with existing behavior problems.

"All children had small shifts in their behavior in the same direction when exposed to the additives," Warner tells WebMD. "If the children are already normal, then that's not a major issue. But if they've already got rather difficult behavior, that might be the final straw that makes it totally unacceptable."

New Study Adds to Debate

In this study, published in the June issue of the Archives of Disease in Childhood, researchers looked at the behavioral effects of removing and then adding back artificial food colorings and preservatives from the diets of 277 children living on the Isle of Wight in the U.K.

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