Food Colouring & Behaviour

Recent UK research shows a clear association between food colourings and children’s behaviour. Even children without common food sensitivities and allergies are likely become fidgety and hyperactive.

The researchers tested some common food dyes and preservatives on a group of toddlers and older children over a six-week period. They gave two groups of kids three sets of drinks – one group was aged three years and the other group aged eight to nine years.

Two of the drinks contained additives and colourings commonly found in sweets and drinks –like sunset yellow (E110), carmoisine (E122), tartrazine (E102), ponceau 4R (E124), quinoline yellow (E104), allura red (E129), and sodium benzoate. The third drink contained no colourings or additives.

Then they compared the kids' behaviour using the same tests that diagnose ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder). The researchers found the children who drank the cocktails of additives and colourings were noticeably more hyperactive and had shorter attention spans than the children who drank the placebo.

The issue of colouring and other food additives arose in the 1970’s when US paediatric allergist Dr Ben Feingold devised an additive-free diet to prevent hyperactivity. Since then, other studies have shown that artificial colourings worsen symptoms of kids with ADHD, and that removing them from their diet improves their symptoms. But the link between hyperactivity and food colouring in otherwise healthy, calm, normal kids hasn't been well demonstrated by studies until more recently.

With or without study results, many parents are aware of the effect sugar and food colourings have on their child or children and avoid the deteriorating behaviour by eliminating sugar and food additives. For those who doubt this effect – watch children before, during and after a kid’s party, where normally calm and healthy children deteriorate to inattentive tyrants.

Behavioural neurotherapist Jacques Duff says that kids with ADHD (and autism) tend to be hyperactive when exposed to food additives and colouring because they have abnormal cell membranes (due to a fatty acid deficiency) that allow these chemical additives into cells such as brain cells, and disrupt the cells' functions. Duff also says children without these conditions can also have lower than normal levels of omega 3 acids in cell membranes and become hyperactive when exposed to additives. Foods containing yellow and red dyes – which contain the chemical tartrazine – are particularly dangerous he says. Salicylates, amines, and preservatives and additives generally should be avoided. “It's easy to tell foods that contain them, as they're identified on food labels either by name or a code number.”

Coloured foods are of little nutritional benefit anyway, as the colouring is added to improve the look of the food, not the nutritional content. Duff says there should be more research into whether these additives are capable of causing serious long-term damage. In the meantime, if it's brightly coloured, it's probably best avoided.

Identifying food additives means a lot of label reading at the supermarket. You can reduce this by buying less processed food and organic options where available. Minimising snacks in packets, like chips, takeaway food, and sweets can make a huge impact on a child’s chemical intake.

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