Is the sudden increase in attention deficit and hyperactivity in children partly caused by a diet of food that’s highly processed or contains artificial food coloring and preservatives?

That’s what many parents have been saying for years. Now a controlled study conducted by British researchers seems to confirm the hunch. A group of three- to eight-year-old children ranging from normal to hyperactive was put on an additive-free diet. In a blind, random study that lasted six weeks, the children were then given a drink a day containing either food coloring and benzoate preservative, or just fruit juice. Children receiving the drink with additives showed an increase in hyperactivity.

The study’s lead researcher, Jim Stevenson, concluded:

We now have clear evidence that mixtures of certain food colours and benzoate preservative can adversely influence the behaviour of children. There is some previous evidence that some children with behavioural disorders could benefit from the removal of certain food colours from their diet. We have now shown that for a large group of children in the general population, consumption of certain mixtures of artificial food colours and benzoate preservative can influence their hyperactive behaviour.

Yet Stevenson stopped short of calling for a ban of these additives, telling the New York Times, “We set up an issue that needs more exploration.”

Nutritionist and writer Marion Nestle doesn’t think this closes the book on additives.

This new study seems well done but again shows large individual differences, so expect the debates to continue. In the meantime, it’s good to remember that color additives go into processed foods to cover up flaws and make them look attractive. Kids don’t need to be eating highly processed foods. The study is another good reason to feed kids plenty of fruits, vegetables, and other minimally processed foods.

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