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Beware the additives!

First published in Offspring Magazine 2013

Most of us have suspected for a long time that ‘party’ food – the colours, fizzy drinks and sweet concoctions of ice-cream cake, jelly, lollies and cheese flavoured puffs were not conducive to calmness. Most children will react with a mixture of loss of control, mood swings, difficulty getting to sleep and the dreaded tantrum. There is growing body of research linking ‘deterioration’ in behaviour and certain additives found in a variety of foods – mostly marketed to target children. A study published in the Lancet medical journal in 2007 by the University of Southampton demonstrated a clear association between three common food additives (a preservative, and colours) and the subsequent triggering of negative behaviours in a large group of children in the general population (not just children who were suspected of having ADHD or ADD) What makes this study compelling is that it evaluated several hundred children in a double-blind crossover study which is considered by the medical world a high standard of trial design. The evaluations of behaviour were undertaken not only by the parents, but other health professionals and teachers known to the children. As it was ‘blinded’, no one knew who was ‘under the influence’ of the particular additives. There are many other sources of evidence linking poor food choices and lack of age appropriate emotional control in studies done in schools and juvenile detention centres. “Why”, I hear you cry “is something not being done?” The origin of the way our food processing industry is given the go ahead to use certain chemicals and additives in the creation of ‘food products’ is often through a designation of GRAS (generally regarded as safe). Unfortunately, the additives that are tested for toxicity are not tested in combination, so there will be an unknown effect of chemicals in the food supply acting in synergy.

However, not all additives are suspect, many are simply thickeners like gelatine (441) and fillers like calcium carbonate which is essentially chalk (170). Some health effects from common additives like the azo dyes (colours yellow, blue, brilliant black and red), some preservatives (eg.282) and flavour enhancers can include inattention, loss of impulse control, hyperactivity, restlessness, inability to get off to sleep and mood swings….sounds like a typical range of behaviours seen in pre-schoolers! However, studies like Southampton (2007) demonstrate that certain expected behaviours like a lively, inquisitive, independently-minded toddler can be disturbed so as to disrupt the course of learning ‘normal’ self regualtion. If these colours and preservatives are consumed in everyday foods like cordials, rice crackers, certain breads; the alteration of the child’s behaviour will be a permanent feature! As adults we may be thinking, “well I eat it too and I don’t feel any different”, we need to bear in mind children are more vulnerable by virture not only of their size, but maturation of the detoxifying organs like the liver and kidneys, and the fact that the brain is still very much ‘under construction’.

The good news for parents is that we don’t need to give kids the food additives we are talking about here – they add no nutritional benefit and can be avoided without compromising the overall quality of their diet. We can choose fresh bread without the anti-fungal preservative 282; we can buy lollies with naturally sourced colours, such as chlorophyll (from green plants) and beetroot instead of coal tar dyes like 102, 110, 122. Some children’s medicines also contain colours, artificial sweetners and even sodium benzoate – a preservative in many cough mixtures known to provoke asthma! It can be confusing and time consuming checking labels and be vigilant about what goes into your child’s diet, but if there is something in their regular diet which could be causing anything from sleeplessness, tantrums or mood swings; removing the offending ingredient is a lot easier than coping with it or hoping they will ‘grow out of it’. We are all different in the way our bodies tolerate or operate in the environmental cocktail surrounding us; but we know children are most vulnerable given their size and stage of brain development. It makes sense to go back to basics with what we feed our children; plain unprocessed food with minimal chemical additives. This will give them the best chance of fulfilling their temperamental and personality potential with interference.

Here are some additives to avoid (not an exhaustive list):

Colours: (102, 104, 110, 122, 124, 129)

Preservatives: (220, 250, 280, 281, 282)

Flavour Enhancers – commonly known as MSG (621, 627, 631, 635)

Artificial sweetners – in all ‘diet’ products (951, 952, 954, 1201)

There are some good mobile apps to identify additives by their number or name and give you an indication of potential side effects which is handy in the supermarket, but, if you have the time and inclination, there are many websites and books to check out the issue of additives and child behaviour more fully.

So what to do about family food?

Start with a good breakfast. Begin the day with porridge and banana, french toast, yogurt or nuts for example.

Include a fish meal at least once a week – tuna, salmon, sardines, shellfish, pilchards. If its all too hard for some kids to buy into; a regular teaspoon of a liquid fish oil supplement is the next best thing.

  • Keep hydrated – carry a water bottle everywhere.

  • Base meals around protein; fish, eggs, red meat, chicken or pulses.

  • Choose a wide variety of colourful fruits and vegetables.

  • Get a good nights sleep!



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