Certain artificial food colorings and other additives can worsen hyperactive behaviors in children aged 3 to 9, British researchers reported on Wednesday.
Tests on more than 300 children showed significant differences in their behavior when they drank fruit drinks spiked with a mixture of food colorings and preservatives, Jim Stevenson and colleagues at the University of Southampton said.
“These findings show that adverse effects are not just seen in children with extreme hyperactivity (such as ADHD) but can also be seen in the general population and across the range of severities of hyperactivity,” the researchers wrote in their study, published in the Lancet medical journal.
Stevenson’s team, which has been studying the effects of food additives in children for years, made up two mixtures to test in one group of 3-year-olds and a second group of children aged 8 and 9.
They included sunset yellow coloring, also known as E110; carmoisine, or E122; tartrazine, or E102; ponceau 4R, or E124; the preservative sodium benzoate, or E211; and other colors.
One of the two mixtures contained ingredients commonly drunk by young British children in popular drinks, they said. They did not specify what foods might include the additives.
Both mixtures significantly affected the older children. The 3-year-olds were most affected by the mixture that closely resembled the average intake for children that age, Stevenson’s team reported.
“The implications of these results for the regulation of food additive use could be substantial,” the researchers concluded.
The issue of whether food additives can affect children’s behavior has been controversial for decades.
Benjamin Feingold, an allergist, has written books arguing that not only did artificial colors, flavors and preservatives affect children but so did natural salicylate compounds found in some fruits and vegetables.
Several studies have contradicted this notion.
Stevenson’s team made up several batches of fruit drinks and carefully watched the children after they drank them. Some did not contain the additives.
The children varied in their responses but in general reacted poorly to the cocktails, Stevenson’s team reported.
“We have found an adverse effect of food additives on the hyperactive behavior of 3-year-old and 8/9-year-old children,” they wrote.
Dr. Sue Baic, a registered dietitian at the University of Bristol, said in a statement: “This is a well designed and potentially very important study.”
“It supports what dietitians have known for a long time, that feeding children on diets largely consisting of heavily processed foods which may also be high in fat, salt or sugar is not optimal for health.”
“The paper shows some statistical associations. It is not a demonstration of cause and effect,” said Dr. Paul Illing, a registered toxicologist and safety consultant in Wirral, Britain.