Study shows food additives may make kids hyper

October 3, 2007

By Kathleen Doheny/WebMD Medical News/September 6, 2007

Reviewed By Louise Chang, MD

Artificial coloring and preservatives in food can increase hyperactivity in kids, a new British study shows.

Researchers from the University of Southampton in the U.K. evaluated the effects of drinks containing artificial colors and additives on 3-year-old and 8- and 9-year-old British kids and found that the additives made hyperactive behavior worse — at least up to middle childhood.

The link between such food additives and hyperactivity has been long debated. “The importance of our work is that effects have been found for 3-year-old and for 8- and 9-year-old children in the general population, not just for those diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), ” says Jim Stevenson, PhD, professor of psychology at the university and a co-author of the study, published online Sept. 6 in The Lancet. “The size of the effects is similar to that found for children with ADHD.”

But a U.S. expert said that scientific evidence overall does not point to a definitive link between additives and hyperactivity. He said it is premature, based on these study results, to suggest a public policy change. But the U.K. Food Standards Agency, which funded the study, has already revised its advice to parents about what to feed their children.

The U.K. Study
The researchers evaluated the effects of different “cocktails” of beverages containing artificial food colors and other additives in 153 3-year-olds and 144 8- and 9-year-olds from the general population. In all, 267 of the 297 children completed the study and were evaluated by teachers and parents for behavior changes after drinking the trio of beverages.

The children drank two types of beverages with food additives commonly found in sweets, beverages, and other foods, and then a placebo drink (one with no additives). One mix had artificial colorings, including sunset yellow (also called E110), carmoisine (E122), tartrazine (E102), ponceau 4R (E124), and the preservative sodium benzoate. Another beverage mix included the current average daily consumption of food additives by the two age ranges of children and included quinoline yellow (E104), allura red (E129) , sunset yellow, carmoisine, and sodium benzoate.

Teachers and parents evaluated behaviors after the children drank each type of beverage, and the older children also were tested on their attention spans.

Study Findings
The older children’s behavior was adversely affected by both of the mixtures with additives, compared with placebo, Stevenson’s group found.

The younger children had more hyperactivity with the first mixture compared with placebo, but their responses to the second beverage varied greatly.

Perspective and Reaction
About 2 million children in the U.S. have ADHD, according to the National Institutes of Health.

The link between food additives and hyperactivity in children has been debated for many decades, says Roger Clemens, DrPH, a professor of pharmacology and pharmaceutical sciences at the University of Southern California School of Pharmacy and a spokesman for the Institute of Food Technologists.

More than 30 years ago, a physician named Ben Feingold proposed a diet free of additives and other substances to calm behavior in children.

The U.K. study findings about the adverse effects of food additives are narrower than those found by Feingold, Stevenson tells WebMD. “Feingold made a very wide-ranging claim about many additives and also salicylates (a group of chemicals related to aspirin but also found in foods) adversely affecting children’s behavior,” he says. “We have shown an adverse effect for a specific set of food colors plus sodium benzoate, a preservative.”

While the most recent study has found a link, Clemens contends that “the totality of the evidence indicates food additives, such as those cited in the [Lancet] paper, do not contribute to hyperactivity. While this study finds a link, most recent studies do not.”

Stevenson disagrees. “The better studies conducted since the mid-1980s confirm that the removal of certain food additives can reduce hyperactivity in children diagnosed with ADHD,” he tells WebMD.

Children’s reactions to diet do vary, Clemens tells WebMD, and some children may react to additives and colors.

What’s a parent to do?

12 Responses to “Study shows food additives may make kids hyper”

  1. Jane Hersey Says:

    The nonprofit Feingold Association has been helping parents of hyperactive children use the low-additive Feingold diet since 1976, and its web site ( describes dozens of studies supporting the link between synthetic food additives and hyperactivity.

  2. It's about time. Says:

    We’ve known this for year. I’ve seen it with my own kids and my preschool students. I hope this wakes parents up and makes them realize that starting their child’s day with Fruity Pebbles and a brightly colored Flintstone Vitamin is setting them up for a disasterous day.

  3. Rebecca K. Says:

    It’s not just kids! Though my ADHD son has been helped immensely by removing artificial things from his diet, and so have my other kids, it isn’t just the kids! I have been helped also. I have fibromyalgia, and have had my pain levels drop dramatically since we went on the Feingold. A benefit I never expected. And I can eat chocolate again – apparently it was the vanillin (artificial vanilla) that was giving me the blinding headaches, not the cocoa. It just has to be GOOD chocolate! Less pain, my kids have better grades, our house is much more peaceful – all just by changing what we eat. I’m a believer now.

  4. annierichardson Says:

    I soooo agree. I still have some food allergies but feel immensely better since going on an organic, whole food diet. The New York Times ran an interesting article yesterday entitled, Food Allergies Stir A Mother To Action. Go to:

  5. Removing additives with the help of the Feingold organization has been a life altering experience. Before the diet my 5 yr old son had ADHD behaviors, our family was in constant chaos. Within one month of removing additives my son began sleeping, talking in a normal tone, walking, listening, following directions,and learning. His aggressive behaviors and frustration levels were dramaticly decreased. People thought I had medicated him.
    We also found out my daughter and my husband get migraines from eating artificial vanillin.
    It scares me to think about the proccessed foods that are sold in America. We are led to believe that everything is safe because it is FDA approved. My eyes have never been opened wider. Think of the broader impact our food could have on health, crime, and education.

    The Lancet study has given alot of attention to this issue, of which I am thrilled. I’m sure more studies will follow, but I don’t have time to sit around waiting for scientific proof. My sons life is happening now, not years from now.

    Thank you for publishing this important information!

  6. Janice S. Says:

    There is a definite link between food additives and behavior! Our son went from hardly ever completing his class work to being a top performer at his school when put on the Feingold diet, which is free of synthetic colors, flavors, and petroleum-based preservatives.

    If Clemens contends that though “this study finds a link, most recent studies do not,” he should check out the quarter century review of studies on ADHD, diet, and behavior by the Center for Science in the Public Interest. The CSPI decided that there WAS evidence for a connection between diet and behavior. The report details the numerous studies of the last quarter century. Those that did not show a link between diet and behavior were poorly designed and executed. Read the review for yourself at

    And by the way, since we have been eating a fairly additive free diet, I have seen a big improvement in my own health.

    I would love to see our nation become as aware of the danger of some food additives as the British, where food makers are finally responding to consumer demand and producing more additive-free food. Thanks for helping get out the news.

  7. Debbie J. Says:

    My son was an uncontrollable, raging, extremely hyper child who was expelled from Kindergarten for his behavior. This all stopped when we removed artificial ingredients from food and all products used in my home, by following the Feingold diet, which is free of synthetic colors, flavors, and petroleum-based preservatives.

    We’ve been on it for 8 years, and it has helped him so much if you met him now you would never guess he was diagnosed with severe ADHD before we started this way of life. It has also helped me in ways I never expected it to. My chronic headaches, ringing in my ears and gasrto-intestinal issues have disappeared.

    The syptoms relieved by going on an artificial-free diet return if either of us eat wrong foods, so I know this is real.

  8. For those who want to see the research, see

    The several early studies which were claimed to “disprove” the diet were not exactly poorly done. They were well done, double blind etc. … BUT they were each very small studies, and the amount of colorings used in the “challenge” part of their studies were tiny. It is sort of like a study of aspirin using only a baby aspirin in a study on grown men with headaches – you will “prove” that aspirin doesn’t work! You may ask WHY they did this sort of thing? Well, now, look at who funded these studies – sometimes the “Nutrition Foundation” (a food additive industry organization)funded and designed the studies outright; in other studies this organization provided the cookies allegedly containing food dyes for the researchers to use, and in any case they gave researchers the guidelines to use only 26 mg of food dye per day as the “challenge” part of their experiments. Since manufacturers refuse to tell you how much coloring is actually IN their products, the researchers did not know any better.

    In fact, in 1977 (30 years ago, before blue ice cream!) the National Academy of Sciences ran a 2-week study of 12,000 people to see what they actually ate, and concluded that 99% of people ate an AVERAGE of up to 337 mg (yes – over 300!!) food dyes per day.

    Apparently, they didn’t believe their own measurements, because they incomprehensibly decided to cut that down by dividing by 5, so that their final conclusion was much less, but still far higher than 26. And when you have an AVERAGE, it means sometimes you get less, and sometimes MORE. How much more? It is not reported, but I can tell you that NO RESEARCH has been done on children or adults giving them 300 mg or more food dyes per day, (not even considering the other additives that are eliminated by the Feingold Program).

    Personally, I have been a volunteer/staff worker with the Feingold Association for many years now. My son was pretty well disabled by ADHD, OCD, TS, asthma, and mood swings before going on the diet. I never thought he would make it to high school – but thanks to the Feingold Program all these symptoms are gone; he has a degree in chemistry and another in engineering, has his dream job, is married and shortly expecting his first child. This lucky baby is already on the Feingold diet.

  9. healthbynature Says:

    This is nothing new, as evidenced by the many comments citing Dr. Feingold’s revolutionary studies. With his help and Dr. Marcia Zimmermann, I’ve been able to improve my daughter’s LD and ADHD through diet and a supplement regimen. So many of our children are needlessly *drugged*, which only masks symptoms, instead of getting to the root cause.

  10. Nezia dias Says:


  11. Nezia Dias Says:

    What causes this behaver in the kids and what can happen if i continue to give it long term affect.

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