Food Dyes and Hyperactivity

Preventive Psychiatry E-Newsletter # 124

Artificial colorings and preservatives boost levels of hyperactivity in pre-school children, and urgent consideration should be given to removing them, doctors from the University of Southampton announced May 25.

The researchers had just completed the first major study of the impact of food additives on the behavior of ordinary children. Previous studies had focused on the worsening of symptoms in hyperactive children, on the assumption that they were somehow more sensitive.

According to the study, published in Archives of Child Health, the incidence of high levels of hyperactivity was halved when the additives were removed.

The Southampton University team, led by Professor John Warner, selected 277 children aged three and four on the Isle of Wight and fed them a carefully controlled diet over four weeks. During the first week, they ate a strictly additive-free diet, devoid of colorings such as tartrazine and sunset yellow and the preservative sodium benzoate.

In the second week, half the children were given a daily drink of fruit juice containing colorings and preservatives, while the other half were given the same drink minus the additives. The experiment was repeated in the third and fourth weeks and changes in the behavior of the children were noted by their parents, who did not know which drink their child had been given.

Parents rated their children as significantly less hyperactive when the additives were removed and markedly more so when they were put back in. As a result the proportion with the highest level of hyperactivity fell from 15 per cent to 6 per cent, the authors say.

"These findings suggest that significant changes in children's hyperactive behaviour could be produced by the removal of artificial colourings and sodium benzoate from their diet," Professor Warner said, adding that the doses of additives used in the study were "on the low side of normal," and the effects were observed throughout the group regardless of allergies or chemical sensitivities.


* Tartrazine (E102): A synthetic yellow azo dye found in sodas, ice cream, sweets, chewing gum, jam and yogurt, commonly used in UK but banned in Norway and Austria.

* Sunset yellow (E110): Also a synthetic yellow azo dye which must be heat-treated. Found in orange jelly, apricot jam, hot chocolate mix, packet soups, canned fish. Banned in Norway and Finland.

* Carmoisine (E122): A synthetic red azo dye which must be heat-treated. Used in jams, sweets, sauce, yogurts, jellies and cheesecake mixes. Banned in Japan, Norway, Sweden and the U.S.

* Ponceau 4R (E124): Also known as Cochineal Red, a synthetic red azo dye used in dessert toppings, jelly, salami, seafood dressings, canned strawberries and fruit pie fillings. Banned in Norway and the U.S.


* Sodium Benzoate (E211): The sodium salt of benzoic acid used as a food preservative and antiseptic. Found in a wide variety of processed foods including margarine, pineapple juice, prawns, milk products, baked goods, lollipops and soft drinks.

"We were surprised by the results because the effect was not just in one group," Professor Warner said. "We showed there was an effect on perfectly normal children. If that is confirmed by further research then there is a public health issue."

A larger, three-year follow-up study is scheduled for September, funded by the UK's Food Standards Agency.

Informant: Gary Kohls


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Juni 2004

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