Food Additives, Hyperactivity, and Common Sense

A BMJ editorial, Food additives and hyperactivity, discusses the recent attention that the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has been giving to the possible link between food additives and childhood hyperactivity. Apparently the EFSA had to re-evaluate studies regarding this possible connection after publishing an opinion that suggested that there wasn’t enough evidence to suggest a correlation between additives and hyperactivity.

The editorial mentions various treatment options for hyperactivity. Apparently there is substantial evidence backing up two common therapies for this problem: drugs and dietary modification. But there is little evidence to justify treating this problem with behavioral therapy, even though this is a common procedure.

It is interesting to note that there is quite a bit of focus on both drug and behavioral therapies. But Andrew Kemp, the author, notes that it would be wise to eliminate various additives that have been shown to affect the behavior of children. After all, even though the evidence may not be staggering, there is still indeed evidence that shows this.

It is ironic to me that Kemp even needs to suggest this; it sounds like this “advice” is common sense. I know that many people treat various aliments with more natural approaches such as dietary changes, as we’ve discussed here, or with other changes such as exercise, meditation, light-therapy, etc. The list is endless. And honestly I’m quite envious of people who have successfully been able to do this well.

I believe that a good number of people (myself included) have strayed from the common sense approach to treating physical and emotional ailments. We’ve relied on drugs and other “easy” methods to the point that it seems extreme to try other, gentler methods.

Now be clear. I am not saying that people shouldn’t take drugs or are lazy if they do. That’s not my point and certainly not even my implication. Therapeutic drugs have a place in our treatment of illnesses just as yoga and sugar-free diets do. And taking drugs, while not void of all complications or issues, is usually more straight-forward than other therapies. (Our society and western viewpoint of illness is partially responsible for this but that’s another topic.) And I know that I too, look to those educated in these matters, to help me choose the best treatment option. And natural solutions, while agreed that they may be viable, are not usually the course of action relied upon.

While I hope that our health care system eventually becomes more well-rounded, I understand that doctors will continue to rely on the regulated, scientific-based methods for years to come. And that’s fine. In fact, I understand why they would be hesitant to suggest something that isn’t based on scientific evidence or that isn’t governed by a regulatory system. That’s why I think it’s up to us as patients to take a second to consider common sense solutions to our everyday health problems. Maybe they will help, maybe not. But at least we’ll be adding balance to our somewhat narrow-minded western viewpoint of medicine.


Kemp, A. (2008). Food additives and hyperactivity. BMJ, 336(7654), 1144-1144. DOI: 10.1136/bmj.39582.375336.BE

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  • Thanks for reading my post and directing me to your very informative blog!

    I think if evidence continues to stack towards linking food additives to hyperactivity, doctors will be more likely to integrate this information into their treatment plan for the child with behavioral problems. After all, its evidence based medicine and looking at diet as a cause for behavior is something which is not central to the scope of our training, so I think it will involve a shift in thinking to implement if it winds up being repeatedly provable. Evidence will propel that shift.

    How a physician uses this information, as we know it now, might depend on how ‘integrative’ the physician is or how willing they are to consider ‘breaking yet still unconventional ‘ treatments even if they ultimately do no harm to the patient.

  • Jane Hersey

    It can be very confusing to use the term “diet” when discussing treatments for hyperactivity and other problems. When we hear “diet” we think of changes in the food we select. But Yellow 5, Red 40, etc. have nothing to do with food, aside from the fact that they are frequently added to food.
    These dyes are synthesized from crude oil, and most of them originate in petroleum refineries in China. As Dr. Bernard Weiss noted, they are more like a drug than like a food. (Dr. Weiss is one of the researchers who studied food additives and hyperactivity.)
    Studies have shown that dyes, as well as some of the other petroleum-based additives like BHA and BHT, have many damaging health effects. Red 3 has been known to cause cancerous thyroid tumors for decades.
    In 2004 researchers from Harvard and Columbia published a meta-analysis of 23 studies of dyes, 15 of which dealt with ADHD symptoms. The researchers concluded that there was ample evidence to show that dyes are linked with behavior and learning problems. See
    The 2007 study from the University of Southampton is the newest and is interesting because it showed that a very modest amount of dye caused problems in the general population, not just “ADHD kids.”
    I am hopeful that some day researchers will take a close look at the actual amount of food dye and other synthetic additives the average American child consumes in a day. I think they will be astonished at the quantity. The amount of dye used in many studies in barley enough to color the frosting on a cupcake. But the typical American child consumes dye in his: toothpaste, vitamins, medicine, beverages, cereal, mac & cheese mix, etc., as well as candy, soda, “juices”, gum and snacks.
    And then there’s the barely-edible substances served in schools. I have been working in this area for over 30 years and I was not prepared to learn what is actually being presented as “food” in American schools. Take a look at and be prepared to be amazed at the “food”, especially the cheese quesadilla. Is it any wonder so many teachers report that the children can’t seem to learn anything in the afternoon?

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  • I think that both natural methods and medications work, depending on the situation. I think it’s important not to reach for a bottle of pills first when something else might work, like restricting sugar, high fructose corn syrup and food additives. I’ve had experience with both. When I used to run a day care center, one of the children had a restricted diet (no additives whatsoever) that allowed him to be able to control his behavior. On the other hand, my niece was belatedly diagnosed with ADHD. She was unable to graduate from High School as a result. After she got her GED and enrolled in college she had great difficulty concentrating and began flunking her classes. Once she started taking medication, she was able to graduate, is a teacher and is taking two Master’s classes this summer. My sister, who has the same problem, still has problems concentrating but, over the years, has learned to redirect her attention. My personal opinion is that high fructose corn syrup and food additives affect the general population and exacerbate the problems for those with ADHD. There is no nutritional value in either and has no business in our “diet”.

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J. R. White

J. R. White is a graduate of the University of Texas at Austin. She has over five years of experience in education and pedagogy.

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