Food Additives Promote ADHD

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More than 30 years ago Dr. Feingold found an association between the intake of some food coloring agents and other food additives and increased problems with attention deficit, hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).1 For the next several years Dr. Feingold’s hypothesis that certain artificial food additives promoted subtle changes in the brain function of kids exposed to them that promoted inattention, impulsivity, and excessive activity received a lot of attention. However, other researchers (some funded by the food industry) were unable to confirm Dr. Feingold’s thesis. As a result, the use of Ritalin and other drugs to control the symptoms of ADHD became increasingly popular. Unfortunately, these drugs can lead to stunted growth and higher blood pressure. Now there is growing evidence that all the FDA approved ADHD drugs may increase the risk of heart disease. Indeed, a recent expert panel voted to compel a “black box” warning on all of these drugs noting they increase blood pressure and the risk of heart disease later in life. However, the FDA decided to go against the recommendation of its expert panel and so for now these drugs lack the bold warning about their link to more cardiovascular disease mortality latter in life.
New Data Suggest Dr Feingold was Correct
More recently evidence has been growing that the common preservation sodium benzoate and certain artificial colors do in fact promote ADHD. A recent double-blind controlled clinical trial examined the effects of feeding 153 kids 3 years old and another 144 kids 8/9 years old.  The children were put on diets devoid of food additives for several weeks and then challenged with a mixed fruit juice drink either containing several of the suspect food additives or no additives. The ratios of the fruit juices were manipulated so that the color and taste of the placebo drink and fruit drink with the artificial food additives were indistinguishable. These researchers assessed behavior using a computer test, and the observations of the kid’s parents and teachers and also trained psychologists. The authors of this study concluded that this study and earlier research they did with 3 year olds “…lend strong support for the case that food additives exacerbate hyperactive behaviors in children at least up to middle childhood.”2
Bottom Line:
Parents should think twice about putting the children on drugs to treat ADHD symptoms, especially given the potential of these drugs to promote cardiovascular disease and stunt growth. It should also be noted that while these drugs often produce impressive short-term improvements in behavior any real improvement of academic performance in the longer term is in dispute. By contrast, a diet composed largely of minimally processed whole grains, fruits and vegetables and modest amounts of omega-3 rich seafood seems likely to improve problems with ADHD. Plus, improving the child’s diet by cutting out the modern processed junk foods containing artificial food additives and salt may reduce problems with ADHD and certainly will help lower their blood pressure (see back page article) and cut the child’s risk of developing cardiovascular disease later in life.
1 Feingold BF. Hyperkenesis and learning disabilities linked to artificial flavors and colors. Am J Nurs 1975;75:797-803
2 McCann D, Barrett A, Cooper A, et al. Food additives and hyperactive behavior in 3-year-old and 8/9 year-old children in the community: a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial. Published online September 6, 2007 at – DOI:10.106/S0140-6736(07)61306-3
By James J. Kenney, PhD, RD, FACN

Shopping List for ADHD

Where are food additives and colorings found?
Read the ingredient list and avoid foods with artificial flavors and colors and preservatives. Here are a few common foods that contain food additives and colors:
• Juice drinks, soda and many beverages
• Candies
• Many packaged snack foods
• Cured meats
• Jello and pudding treats
• Yogurt, cheese
• Frozen desserts
• Many cookies and crackers
• Packaged cereals
What are the best foods to eat to avoid a lot of artificial additives?
• Fruit (fresh or frozen without colorings or additives)
• Vegetables (fresh or frozen without colorings or additives)
• Fresh meat, poultry, fish
• Beans and other dried legumes
• Milk, plain yogurt
• Unprocessed grain foods: rice, brown rice, plain pasta, whole wheat pasta, oatmeal, some whole grain breads
The good news is that the low-fat versions of these are also good for you and your heart, too! FMI visit

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