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Food Additives May Affect Kids' Hyperactivity

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

New Study Adds to Debate continued...

During the study, the children ate a strict diet free of food additives for one week. In the following three weeks, the children drank a fruit juice drink supplemented with 20 mg of food colorings and 45 mg of sodium benzoate (a food preservative commonly used in fruit drinks and carbonated beverages) or a placebo fruit drink each day on alternate weeks in addition to the food additive-free diet.

Neither the parents nor the children knew which beverage contained the additives, and the beverages were indistinguishable in appearance and taste. The children's behavior was evaluated before the study began and assessed in clinical tests and by the parents throughout the study.

The study showed that the parents reported significantly more disruptive behavior during the periods when the children drank the beverage containing additives, and there was a reduction in hyperactive behavior once the child stopped drinking the beverage.

But the clinical tests showed no increases in hyperactivity during these periods.

Researchers say the parents' ratings may be more sensitive to changes in behavior because parents experience their child's behavior over a longer period of time and in more varied settings and under less optimal conditions than in a clinical evaluation. They say that in trials looking at the effects of medications to treat ADHD, parents typically report the largest benefits of the drugs.

The study also showed that children with severe hyperactivity were no more or less likely to respond to the food additives than those with milder behavioral problems.

"If this can be replicated, there may be a significant public health message that we need to change people's perception of food, that it doesn't need to be highly colored to be nutritious," says Warner.

Finding a Diet to Fight Hyperactivity

Aside from the preservative and food colorings examined by this study, Schnoll says many other foods are commonly implicated in triggering hyperactive behavior and allergic reactions in children. They include chocolate, cow's milk, eggs, oranges, sugar, and wheat.

That's why she says it's so difficult to do these types of studies well -- it's hard to take out only one or two things from the diet and come up with what causes the problems in behavior.

Instead, Schnoll recommends a "few foods" or "elimination" diet for children with hyperactivity problems to determine if food reactions are playing a role in their behavior. The diet includes only a few foods that do not commonly cause allergic reactions, such as chicken, lamb, bananas, pears, rice, and potatoes.

The child stays on this diet for two weeks, and then the parents can start adding foods one by one back into diet and monitor for allergic reactions or changes in behavior.

"In all studies I have seen, this is best approach where you can actually see kids react after eating various certain foods," says Schnoll.

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