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Food Additives and Children’s Behavior

Posted in Food Safety on September 24, 2018

I can distinctly remember certain times in my childhood, and many of them were highlighted by food, glorious food. Food is simply wonderful in so many forms, and its associations multiply and are called forth from memory by sight or simply a whiff of my grandmother’s pepper steak. Sometimes the memories are thick with visions: sitting on the gritty Northeastern sand of Orchard Beach licking the remains of a cherry popsicle; dollops of cheese oozing out of a grilled cheese sandwich at the luncheonette across the street from my elementary school; the unbelievable warmth and taste of Irish soda bread; and alas – the burst of juice from the white grapes that were eaten straight from the stem! But back in the 1960’s, I was nourished by wholesome, unprocessed foods: food that was prepared to be eaten as a meal; as a family. I cannot recall snacking on chips or sugary snacks. They indeed were a treat. Food additives weren’t a norm for me.

My Kiddos

My kids are “millennials”, the popular name tag bestowed upon those born between the early 1980’s to the mid 1990’s, and when they were younger, I encouraged them to eat in a healthy fashion. Now, they didn’t always heed my advice, and they sometimes chose to chow down on Fruit Rollups, Doritos, Pizza Bagel bites, and the ubiquitous Lunchables. I simply had NO idea how bad these food items were for little growing bodies and how sugar is added to almost every processed food you can think of. Bad mom! Or was it just naïve mom?

Is My Kid Crazy, Does He Have ADHD, Am I a Bad Parent, and Other Such Questions You May Ask

It is without question that kids are full of energy that at times seems hardly containable. That, of course, leaves parents in the throes of a cycle of questions as to why their child is behaving with something akin to insanity. And it’s rubbing off on you. As you will discover reading this article, the real culprit is perhaps not your parenting but a complex chemical reaction that is flooding their bodies in a systemic fashion: not the least of which is just what these chemicals are doing to their undeveloped little brains.

What is particularly interesting is that much of the research on food additives and children’s behavior originated in the UK. Movies and TV portray British children as rather docile, soft-spoken, and well-behaved. Since behaviors and attitudes, and even habits of our British cousins closely mirror our own here in the US, it is not surprising that the parents of young children in the UK are equally as disturbed and mystified as to why their previously angelic children are adopting the behaviors of well, demons. (British researcher scratches head).

Enter the era of food additives designed to make otherwise healthy food considerably more appealing to children. Children are a wiggly mass of senses: and one of the most powerful is sight. Young children absolutely adore color. On a primal level, children are attracted to bright, colorful objects. It wasn’t long before food manufacturers discovered and implemented this fact in order to attract the youngest of their consumers.

The Effect of Additives on Children’s Behavior

In a recent study conducted in the UK, researchers discovered that a group of three-year olds were more likely to lack concentration, lose their temper, interrupt others, and struggle to achieve sleep when they drank fruit juice that contained colorings and preservatives. The study participants drank a daily fruit juice that was dosed with 20 mg of artificial colorings and 45 mg of preservative, including Tartrazine E102, Sunset Yellow E110, Carmoisine E122, Ponceau 4R E124, and the preservative Soldium Benzoate E211.

The control group drank fruit juice that looked just like the ones the experimental group did but without the additives. When parents assessed their child’s behavior (interrupting, disturbing others, difficulty getting to sleep, concentration, and temper tantrums) their results demonstrated that the artificial colorings and sodium benzoate had “substantial effects” on behavior. The researchers concluded that “significant changes in children’s hyperactive or disruptive behavior could be produced by removing colorings and additives from their diet.”

So What Additives and Preservatives Should We Watch Out For?

Artificial Colors (found in sweets, sweetened drinks, cereals, and many processed foods:

  • 102 tartrazine,
  • 104 quinoline yellow,
  • 107 yellow 2G,
  • 110 sunset yellow,
  • 122 azorubine,
  • 123 amaranth,
  • 124 ponceau red,
  • 127 erythrosine,
  • 128 red 2G,
  • 129 allura red,
  • 132 indigotine,
  • 133 brilliant blue,
  • 142 green S,
  • 151 brilliant black,
  • 155 chocolate brown Natural color,
  • 160b annatto (in yoghurts, ice creams, popcorn, etc.  160a is a safe alternative)


  • Preservatives 200-203 sorbates (in margarine, dips, cakes, fruit products)
  • 210-213 benzoates (in juices, soft drinks, cordials, syrups, medications)
  • 220-228 sulphites (in dried fruit, fruit drinks, sausages, and many others)
  • 280-283 propionates (in bread, crumpets, bakery products)
  • 249-252 nitrates, nitrites (in processed meats like ham)
  • Synthetic antioxidants – in margarines, vegetable oils, fried foods, snacks, biscuits, etc
  • 310-312 Gallates 319-320 TBHQ, BHA, BHT (306-309 are safe alternatives)
  • Flavor enhancers – in flavored crackers, snacks, takeaways, instant noodles, soups 621 MSG 627, 631, 635 disodium inosinate, disodium guanylate, ribonucleotides

Other additives that can negatively impact children’s behavior are:

  1. Dairy products – Lactose intolerance or allergies due to proteins found in dairy can manifest themselves in changes in a child’s behavior, such as irritability or aggressiveness.
  2. Sugar – Sugar is a huge contributor to hyperactivity. The average child in the US consumes more than three times the recommended amount of sugar. Sugar has been shown to cause long-term health damage, and a diet high in processed foods (in which there is a large amount of sugar) has been linked to depression, cognitive delay, and sleep problems.
  3. Preservatives – There are several preservatives that may be the culprit in an increase in negative behavior in children, including nitrates, nitrites, and sodium benzoate.
  4. Food Allergens – Dairy, nuts, eggs, soy, and corn are common allergens. Intolerance and allergies can manifest themselves by causing great health and behavior problems. Sometimes it is difficult to identify which allergen is the source, so an allergist should be consulted. Even ADHD is diagnosed when a food intolerance is missed.

As a parent, check the labels on the food products that your child eats. A whole-foods based diet is recommended in order to avoid the side effects of artificial additives and preservatives.

By: Kerry Bazany, Contributing Writer (Non-Lawyer)