As Susan served breakfast for Jimmy, her six-year-old son with attention deficit disorder (ADHD), little did she know that the tasty foods he was gobbling up — a blueberry muffin, a bowl of Fruit Loops, and a glass of Sunny D Citrus Punch — would worsen his ADHD symptoms, making him more inattentive and fidgety.
Although he knew his math problems perfectly the night before, he did poorly on the day’s test because he couldn’t focus on his teacher’s instructions. Susan found out that it wasn’t the foods themselves, or their high sugar content, that increased her son’s distraction, but the rainbow of artificial colors they contained.
Studies published in The Lancet, Pediatrics, and Journal of Pediatrics suggest that some children with ADHD are adversely affected by food additives (see “Study Up,” left sidebar). And a new study indicates that artificial coloring and flavors, as well as the preservative sodium benzoate, can make some non-ADD kids hyperactive.
After Susan heard about the new study on TV, she had Jimmy avoid foods that contained coloring. Within three days, she saw an improvement in his ADHD symptoms. He sat down to eat, stood still long enough to get his hair combed and his teeth brushed, put his coat on by himself, and had plenty of hugs and kisses for his family. His teacher called to say how well Jimmy did in class, and asked if a new medication was responsible for his improved behavior.
How do you know if food additives are compromising your child’s focus? Conduct a quick test at home. For one week, avoid foods and drinks that list on their labels U.S. certified color Red #40, Blue #2, Yellow #5 (Tartrazine), Yellow #6 (Sunset Yellow), as well as sodium benzoate. Do you find your child less fidgety?
After seven days, reintroduce food additives into his diet by squeezing a few drops of artificial food coloring — you know, the McCormick brand in the little plastic bottles — into a glass of water, and have your child drink it. Observe his behavior for two or three hours. If you don’t see a change, have him drink a second glass. Does he become more hyperactive?
What to Do
If so, wean your child off foods that are artificially dyed or flavored, or that contain sodium benzoate. Here are some helpful tips about what foods to avoid and what to serve in their place:
- Substitute 100 percent fruit juice for soft drinks, fruit drinks, and fruit punches — all of which are typically artificially colored and flavored. If your child must have a soft drink, try 7-Up, Squirt, or Sprite. These brands are naturally flavored and free of dyes—though they all contain sodium benzoate. Even better, buy natural sodas or fruit spritzers sold at health food stores.
- If you have time to bake, make muffins, cakes, and cookies from scratch. Cake mixes contain red and yellow coloring. Use pure extracts instead of artificial vanilla (called vanillin), almond, peppermint, lemon, orange, and coconut flavors. Bonus: Pure extracts taste better, although they are more expensive. No time to bake? Try Pepperidge Farm Chessmen cookies, which are free of dyes and low in sugar.
- As you would expect, the more colorful the cereal, the more food dyes it contains. Cap’n Crunch, Trix, Fruit Loops, Lucky Charms, and Apple Jacks are full of food coloring. Look for breakfast cereals that are free of dyes — like Cheerios, which doesn’t contain artificial colors, flavors, or preservatives.
- If your kids love barbecue sauce, or if you use it to spice up everyday dishes, read the label before buying a bottle. Many brands are loaded with Red #40. Hunt’s Original, however, is free of food coloring. Does your child enjoy popsicles? Buy Welch’s Fruit Juice Bars, one of the few brands without dyes or preservatives.
- Jell-O and other gelatin mixes are loaded with artificial coloring and flavors. Make your own gelatin salad or desserts by dissolving plain gelatin in 100 percent fruit juice for a pretty, and nutritious, dessert.
Dyes and preservatives can also be found in personal care products, such as toothpaste and mouthwashes, some of which may be swallowed by young children. Again, read the labels carefully before buying them. Crest toothpaste, for instance, contains blue dye; Colgate’s Original is free of it. Clear, natural mouthwashes are a good substitute for those brightly colored varieties.
Most pediatric medicines are also artificially colored and flavored. Ask your doctor if there is an additive-free substitute that would work just as well. For over-the-counter medicines, choose Motrin or Tylenol, which come in dye-free white tablets. Be sure to adjust the dosage for your child’s age. The liquid form of the over-the-counter antihistamine Benadryl is artificially colored with red dye, but the medication also comes in clear liquid capsules.
Avoiding foods with artificial colors and preservatives has another big benefit: It will raise the nutritional value of your family’s diet, since the “junkiest” foods on supermarket shelves tend to be — you guessed it — most heavily colored and flavored.