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BLOG: September 2007

Hyperactivity, attention deficit and food additives

If we were fruit flies, many of us would die within minutes from hyperactivity caused by consuming yellow food dye. Luckily, we're not that small, but it doesn't mean we can't be adversely affected. And, as you'd expect, it is children that feel it the most: food additives induced hyperactivity, attention deficit and their possible effects on self-image

can have serious impact on how their lives unfold.

Hyperactivity/attention deficit link to food additives is positively established more than three decades ago (Why Your Child is Hyperactive, 1975, by San Francisco's allergist Ben Feingold). But it was largely ignored officially, since there was never a large double-blind controlled study on the subject.

Not anymore. At the beginning of this month, the FSA (Food Standards Agency, an independent UK government agency protecting public health and consumer interest related to food) published - in Lancet online - results of the study it founded, which was carried out by J. Stevenson et al. from Southampton University.

The study observed effects of widely used preservative, sodium benzoate, in combination with most widely used artificial food colors, on nearly 300 children (153 3-year-olds and 144 8 to 9 year old). Over one-week period, the children were consuming the amount of preservative/dies typically found in an average child's diet. Following week they consumed lower amounts, and the next week they had no food preservatives/dies in their diet.

All symptoms of hyperactivity - restlessness, lack of concentration, over-active behavior - were significantly higher, on average, when children were consuming the additives. Some were strongly affected, others moderately, and some not at all. Also, the 3-year-olds were generally more sensitive than the older group.

Following the study, the FSA already had a meeting with the UK food industry representatives, to inform and consider appropriate actions. It also informed the European Food Safety Authority, which is currently reviewing the safety of all European Union permitted food colors. Hopefully, similar reaction to these most recent findings will be seen in the U.S. as well.

It should be noted that the study hasn't established direct sensitivity link to any single additive. In fact, it used two different mixtures, both containing the same level of sodium benzoate, but with different mixture of food colors.

Mix A consisted of sodium benzoate, Sunset yellow (FD&C Yellow No. 6, Food Yellow 3, etc.), Tartrazine (FD&C Yellow No. 5, Food Yellow 4), Carmoisine (FD&C Red No. 2, Food Red 3) and Ponceau 4R (FD&C Red No. 3, Food Red 7, etc.).

Mix B had sodium benzoate, Sunset yellow, Quinoline yellow (yellow, yellow 2G, etc.), Carmoisine and Allura red (FD&C Red No. 40, Food Red 17, etc.). One of the two mixes caused significantly higher hyperactivity response, thus either particular additives, or particular combinations, or both, are the culprits.

This points to the complexity of reaction to food, in general. A number of factors based in the genetic code or nutritional status, or both, can be  involved. Also, hyperactivity can be caused by other types of chemical sensitivity, not only by sensitivity to certain food additives. Other synthetic and natural substances linked to hyperactivity are aspirin, salicylates, ethanol, ascorbic acid, and others. Many foods are also indicated: cow milk, soy, sugar, chocolate, wheat, cow's cheese, hen's eggs, peanuts, etc.

And it doesn't make it any simpler that any of these can have different effect when combined, either among themselves or with other substances.

Hence, just avoiding food additives may not solve your problem - if you have it - but is likely to help, and is certainly worth consideration.