Could a modern diet chock full of artificial coloring and preservatives be contributing to hyperactivity in children? A study out in the British medical journal The Lancet this week has made that connection, raising new questions for parents trying to balance health and convenience when feeding their families.
Researchers found that when kids (ages 3, 8, and 9) increased their consumption of artificial colors, dyes and preservatives found in popular foods like candy and soft drinks, their behavior became progressively more hyperactive. But do the findings suggest that removing artificial dyes, colors and preservatives like sodium benzoate used in so many popular kids' products could reduce the growing incidence of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)? Not necessarily. NEWSWEEK's Sarah Kliff spoke with Eugene Arnold, emeritus professor of psychiatry at Ohio State University and an ADHD expert not involved with the study, about what the new research means for parents and the food industry. Excerpts:
NEWSWEEK: Research on the link between food additives and hyperactivity goes back about 30 years. What is it about this study that makes it particularly important?
Eugene Arnold: This study is different from the others because it's the first where they didn't attempt to just study kids who had a problem with hyperactivity or behavior. They went out and asked for everyone in a given school to participate, so the sample is much more representative. This study says that the relationship between food and hyperactivity may be a bigger public health problem and not just for kids that have ADHD. Of course, it's only one study that needs to be replicated to make sure that its not just a chance finding.
Does this research mean that we should consider reducing the amount of preservatives and artificial flavors and colors in our foods?
There are huge economic issues involved with food preservatives. Preservatives make the food supply safer and reduce costs because they make foods less perishable. If we take preservatives out we would have to balance against that the cost in terms of money and also the public health cost in terms of food contamination.
What about artificial dyes?
The food colorings would have very little economic impact except for manufacturers of the dyes. Adding these colorings is an additional cost, so I suspect that food companies would be willing to have the coloring banned if everybody had to give them up. Right now no company can afford to give up food coloring because they would lose to the competition. It would have to be something that everybody is forced to do the same way. I'm usually not for regulation, but in this instance I think it would be a good idea.
It doesn't look like artificial flavors and preservatives are going anywhere in the near future. What can parents do in that situation? Are there any particular ingredients that have been linked to hyperactivity?
Right now we don't have a prioritized list. These researchers used sodium benzoate, but it's not the only preservative that is involved. As for artificial additives, that means things like refined sugar and Popsicles aren't so great. But these are all things that are not an essential food group. Nobody's nutrition is going to suffer from giving up soda, Popsicles and candy. There's no risk to taking it away, but it may be a lot of grief. Whether it's worth it to go through the policing is a decision that needs to be made by each individual parent.
Is the effect of artificial additives on behavior generally the same for all children? Or does it vary?
Some kids are more sensitive to the effects than others. If a child has ever had a food intolerance, like needing a formula change or a food allergy, that might be a tip-off that they should avoid preservatives and dyes. But that's difficult with our modern foods to completely avoid all preservatives. They're so pervasive and a lot of processing depends on them.
If we could eliminate all artificial flavors and colors from foods, what effect would that have on hyperactivity?
In practical terms, you might reduce the hyperactivity of the average child by a small amount. That could add up to a huge amount in terms of a school atmosphere or learning environment. If every kid in the classroom is a little more subdued and more focused on their work then that could change things. But you don't expect to cure many individual patients by removing dyes from food.
There's been a rise in the number of ADHD cases diagnosed in recent decades. Do you think that artificial additives might have something to do with it?
I think there are a lot of things contributing to that. ADHD is a result of gene expression and an interaction of genes with environment. A lot of things that have changed in the environment over the past few decades. We could take color television and say "OK, ADHD diagnoses have increased when the number of color televisions have increased," but doesn't mean that color television causes the change. Because additives have increased at the same time as ADHD doesn't necessarily mean they've caused that. These changes need sorting out.