Regular readers will know that I am very interested in the impact of food and food additives on cognition and behavior. Unfortunately it is a field that has generated more heat than light, with some patients associations and commercial organizations providing rather unbalanced assessments about the whole issue and how best to deal with it.
What we do on this website is to provide you with information that has a solid foundation. A good example is a new study published this week in the Lancet by a team of researchers from Southampton University in the United Kingdom. (The full article is available here).
An alarming number of foods contain artificial food color and additives (AFCAs), and there has been a great deal of concern about their potential impact not only on behavior, but also on the developing brain.
A study published three years ago examined the impact of specific mixtures of additives on hyperactivity in three-year-old children. It was an important piece of work, but the worry was that the study focused on parental rather than objective ratings of hyperactivity. Though parents are usually very good at observing their own children, most of us also have our own ideas about the things that may cause problems.
In this new study was sponsored by the British Food Standards Agency and the researchers looked at the effects of additives on changes in children's behavior in a community-based, double-blinded, placebo-controlled, crossover trial.
The study involved 153 children aged 3, plus 144 children aged 8-9. They were given either a drink containing sodium benzoate plus one of two AFCA mixes, or a placebo drink. The two AFCA mixes contained:
- Mix A - included 20 mg of artificial food colorings (5 mg sunset yellow [E110], 2⋅5 mg carmoisinetartrazine [E102], and 5 mg ponceau 4R [E124, and 45 mg of sodium benzoate [E211]. (These were the same ingredients used in the previous study). [E122], 7⋅5 mg
- Mix B was designed to be what the average 3 year-old and 8-9 year old may be consuming today, and included 30 mg of artificial food colorings (7⋅5 mg sunset yellow, 7⋅5 mg carmoisine, 7⋅5 mg quinoline yellow [E110], and 7⋅5 mg allura red AC [E129]) and 45 mg of sodium benzoate.
The children's behaviors were measured by a “global hyperactivity aggregate” (GHA) that is based on teachers' and parents' ratings. The older children also received a computerized test for attention.
The main findings were that:
- Mix A had a significant adverse effect on children in GHA for all the 3 year-olds, compared to the placebo.
- Mix B produced mixed results for 3 year-olds
- Both Mix A and Mix B had significant adverse effects on the 8-9 year olds, compared to the 8-9 year-olds on the placebo
- Children vary greatly in their levels of adverse effects from consuming AFCA
So this new research indicates that foods containing AFCAs may fuel hyperactive behaviors in children from early to middle childhood. An important point is that AFCAs may impact any child: the effect is not restricted to children who are already hyperactive or have attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). The problem with hyperactivity is not so much the challenge of living with an overly energetic child, but rather the impact of hyperactivity on development and education, particularly on reading skills. The hyperactive child may not get the full benefit of a conventional education.
The researchers do not yet know whether their findings apply to older children. But they raise the question whether complete withdrawal of AFCAs from the food supply might decreases the overall rate of hyperactivity in the population.
However, they ask whether the general levels of hyperactivity in children in the general population might not go down significantly if AFCAs were withdrawn completely.