Does diet affect children’s behaviour?

From ABC Health and Wellbeing, 1 May 2014:

Talk to many parents and they’ll list a number of foods guaranteed to turn their normally well-behaved offspring into an uncontrollable monster. But speak to those who spend their days working with children who have behavioural problems and you get a very different perspective.

Parenting forums, blogs and books are overflowing with advice about which foods to keep off the menu if you’re worried about your child’s behaviour. We’re told children should avoid any foods containing additives, such as artificial colours or preservatives, along with anything containing sugar, wheat or dairy.

But how much of this relationship between food and children’s behaviour is parental paranoia, and how much is real?

The debate appears to have started in the 1960s, when American allergist Dr Benjamin Feingold was treating children for skin rashes and other allergic-type reactions. He noticed that eliminating certain ingredients from a child’s diet not only improved their skin, it also led to major improvements in behaviour.

He argued the ingredients most likely to be responsible were food additives, such as colourings and preservatives, and a particular class of naturally occurring chemicals called salicylates, which are found in plants.

Feingold’s discovery spawned a diet, a best-selling book, and struck fear into the hearts of food manufacturers.

Southampton study

One of the most significant recent contributions to the topic came from a UK research group at Southampton University, led by Professor Jim Stevenson. In 2007 they published results from a well-designed trial suggesting a link between certain food additives and increased hyperactivity in otherwise normal children.

Stevenson became interested in the area when he observed the positive affect that restricted diets, including the removal of food additives, had on children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

In the study children were given one of two mixes of artificial food colours and additives or a placebo, neither the children nor the researchers were aware of what the children were drinking. The additives included in the study were the colours sunset yellow [E110], carmoisine [E122], tartrazine [E102], ponceau 4R [E124], quinoline yellow [E104] allura red AC [E129] and the preservative sodium benzoate [E211].

What the researchers found was that these additives had a small (but statistically significant) effect on the overall level of hyperactivity among two groups of children – one group aged three years, and the other aged 8/9 years.

“It should be noted that children varied in the extent of their behavioural response – the overall effect was small but for some children it was substantial,” says, Stevenson, Emeritus Professor at the School of Psychology, University of Southampton.

Stevenson says even though the effect was small, it represented a preventable influence on the level of hyperactivity in children, and convinced him of the merits of the UK government’s attempts to remove those additives from children’s diets.

However the evidence from the Southampton study wasn’t enough for many food regulatory authorities, including those in Europe and Australia. Also the study has been criticised because children were given a mixture of six additives, making it difficult to distinguish whether individual additives were affecting the children’s behaviour or whether all were equally responsible.

Despite this, it did provide further evidence supporting Feingold’s claims: that some individuals were more sensitive to – or intolerant of – the additives linked with hyperactivity. Read more.

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