Are food additives making your child play up?

Food colouring, preservatives and other additives are often blamed for all kinds of bad behaviour in children. But what effect do they really have, if at all? 

Imagine the scene: your little angels have come back from a party, filled to the brim with lollies, cake, and hysteria. As they rampage around your home, you curse the additives that appear to have turned them into little devils. 

But are the additives really to blame? 

What the research says

Bupa dietitian Gemma Cosgriff says that it’s hard to prove that food additives cause behavioural problems in kids. 

“At this point in time, there's no actual evidence to show a direct link between food additives and poor health or behaviour outcomes.

“It's a difficult area of research, and usually one additive at a time is tested, so we just don’t know much about what happens when you combine a number of those additives.”

One of the most quoted research findings comes from a UK study that tested six food additives (five colourings and a preservative) on nearly 300 children, and found that the level of hyperactivity increased in the test subjects following their exposure to a mix of additives. 

However, the study occurred in 2007 and there hasn’t been any other research since to support this finding, Cosgriff says.

The impact of food intolerances 

Your child’s behavioural problems might instead be due to a food intolerance or sensitivity, which can trigger a range of symptoms, including hyperactivity, insomnia and irritability.

“Take note if your child feels unwell, or has a reaction like a rash or hives, or has nausea, vomiting or diarrhoea – that can indicate allergies or intolerance to a particular food,” Cosgriff says. 

If you do think your child might have a food intolerance, it’s important that you speak to your doctor or an accredited practising dietitian. Don’t try to self-diagnose, as this may lead you to restrict your child’s eating habits unnecessarily and cause them to be deficient in nutrients essential to their growth and development.
boys drawing on the floor

Sugar high

We’ve all seen children go a little crazy after too many lollies and too much soft drink at a birthday party. It’s worth remembering that these processed foods also tend to be high in sugar. 

“That can create that sugar high we often associate with hyperactivity in children,” Cosgriff says.

The jury’s out

Although the link between food additives and poor behaviour in children still isn’t clear, it’s a good idea to limit processed foods where possible, especially those high in added sugar and saturated fat. Instead, stock up on whole foods like fruit and vegetables, and think about portion sizes. The occasional cupcake is OK for a treat, though!
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