A highly reported study of the effects of food additives may be misrepresented in the popular media, doctors warn.
A study supported by Britain’s Food Standards Agency has provided evidence that some combination of food additives may impact children's activity level. But the study findings, which have been picked up by mainstream media around the world, from The New York Times to The Sunday Times in South Africa, have been misinterpreted as confirming that food additives increase hyperactivity in children with ADHD.
Hyperactivity is defined, in scientific terms, as an activity level 2 Standard Deviations (SD) above the average. The study, first published in The Lancet, reported an increase of about .2 SD, or 10% of the difference between an average child and one with hyperactivity. It's "inappropriate" to equate the modest increases in activity level found in the study with hyperactivity, says Andrew Adesman, M.D., Chief of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics at Schneider Children's Hospital in New York.
Physicians and psychiatrists responding to the study have also noted that individual reactions to food additives varied widely, and that the study did not look at children formally diagnosed with ADHD.
Although food additives may have modest effects on some children, the results of this study do not show that they cause hyperactivity. Thomas Spencer, M.D., a specialist in Pediatric Psychopharmacology at Massachusetts General Hospital, adds that the social impact of forbidding "non-natural" foods, and the lunch table ostracism that may follow, could be worse for a child than an increased activity level.