Food Coloring, Preservatives, Artificial Sweeteners and ADHD

There has been a lot of controversy surrounding the Feingold diet. Benjamin Feingold, M.D. a pediatric allergist who was working for Kaiser Permanente in California in the 1970s reported that eliminating food dyes, preservatives, and other allergens from foods would help the symptoms of ADHD. He proposed an ADHD diet and claimed that kids who followed the diet would have improvements in their ADHD behavior. Almost immediately nutritionist, pediatricians, and other allergist cried foul. They disagreed completely with Feingold's recommendation and set out to prove him wrong.

Researcher have had almost 40 years to look at the connection between ADHD and food additives and have concluded that, in some children, food additives worsen ADHD behaviors. A major study published in Lancet in 2007 reported that both 3 year olds and 8/9 year old fed a diet with artificial colors and the preservative sodium benzoate had worse scores of behavior and attention tests. Dr. D. McCann, the lead researcher in the Lancet study reported the following; "Artificial colours or a sodium benzoate preservative (or both) in the diet result in increased hyperactivity in 3-year-old and 8/9-year-old children in the general population."

No one understands exactly how or why the food additives or preservatives are adversely affecting behavior but the British government was impressed enough with the Lancet study findings to ask manufacturers to remove certain food coloring and preservatives from foods sold in Great Britain. The food dyes in question are: U.S. certified color Red #40, Blue #2, Yellow #5 (Tartrazine), Yellow #6 (Sunset Yellow), as well as sodium benzoate.

It is estimated that 5% to 30% of children will have a reaction to food dyes or preservatives. It is unclear if this is an allergic reaction or some other type of interaction. I suppose that certain dyes and preservatives can somehow interact with our own individual chemistry to produce attention and hyperactivity problems but the science behind why these 5-30 percent of children have these reactions is just not available

It would seem prudent to at least try to eliminate these food dyes and preservatives from our kid's diet just in case our child is one of the kids that have problems but unfortunately, these dyes and preservatives are in a ton of the foods, snacks and vitamins that we feed our kids. It is a huge surprise to read the number of ingredients listed in the food that we eat. Once you are finished weeding though the list of unpronounceable additives all you want to do is reach for something simple to eat like a grape. It would be better if we did not have to worry about what had been sprayed on the darn grape. Eating and feeding our kids has become more complicated than it needs to be.

The only way to know if your child is one of the children that will have a reaction to the dyes or preservatives is to eliminate them and see how it goes. Eliminating the dyes and the sodium benzoate is different than the Feingold diet. The Feingold diet recommends eliminating many other things including problematic foods for some allergic people such as milk and wheat. You start with a very basic diet and then you slowly introduce other foods slowly while making certain that they are not causing a reaction in your child.

It takes a fair amount of time and commitment to go through the process of eliminating all the offending possibilities from your diet but I will post about how it is done in my next post.

Food additives and hyperactive behaviour in 3-year-old and 8/9-year-old children in the community: a randomised, double-blinded, placebo-controlled trial; McCann D, Barrett A, Cooper A, Crumpler D, Dalen L, Grimshaw K, Kitchin E, Lok K, Porteous L, Prince E, Sonuga-Barke E,Warner JO, Stevenson J.; Lancet, November 2007


  1. Hi, its funny you mention this. I was food shopping the other day thinking about this. There are so many foods my kids love that could be made more "naturally". I read all ingredients and try to buy more natural for my children. For instance, bread. The brand they love has high fructose corn syrup. I stopped buying it and buy a natural honey/whole wheat now for him. Yogurt. They love only one, Yoplait Gogurt. It killed me to buy it for them because of the dyes, but it was the only one they eat. I was so happy that Yoplait came out with Simply Gogurt. The problem is you cannot find it everywhere. Though it doesnt have "Scooby Doo" on the packaging my kids said this tastes better than the regular one. I tried it and it really does make a difference. Cookies, Newmans Own Oreo cookies "yummy". I swap the cookies into and real "oreo" box and the kids do not know the difference. Thanks for all your information.

  2. Hi Tessermom,

    I was looking for a Contact Me link for you but couldn't find anything.

    I also have ADHD Inattentive Subtype. I was wondering if I could send you my treatment profile as I'm having a lot of problems finding a solution. Maybe you could offer some insight.

    Do you have an email address? Mine is migu eldcf at gmail dot com. (Just take out the spaces!)

    Send me an email as I won't know if you respond here.



  3. Dear Tessermom,

    Very interesting - thanks for sharing your research!

    Actually, in my book on ADHD, I have a section on this subject - food additives and ADHD - and it would be wonderful to hear what you think about it.

    My email is; if you're interested, ping me and I'll send you a free copy. =)

    All the best,

  4. Thanks Kathy so much for your comments. Miguel, I hope you got my email and David, I will write a review on the book on the blog as well. Happy trails this summer for all of you headed for a vacation destination.

  5. hello,
    I am the mother of a 7 year old boy whom I homeschool and getting through the school day has been very challenging! Trying to keep him focused and paying attention is tough! He is always laying down, moving around, touching something and not paying attention. Whenver I ask him a question about what I just sat there teaching he cannot answer it correctly...yet he can watch a spongebob episode and repeat the entire show to me, he can also tell me something he got as a gift a year ago, who bought it and where he was at the time! So he is not a dumb kid wich frustrates me more! I am trying to be patient but it's not working too well because I feel like I am wasting my breath everyday since he's not listening! He also becomes a behavorial problem as well when it comes to school. I would love to know more about what to look for in eliminating in foods. He also has life threatening food allergies to dairy (milk), peanut and tree nuts! I would appreciate any help or advice I can get.
    thank you!

  6. Hi,

    The best thing to do is to get him moving. Go out with him and walk or run quickly around the block, jump on a trapoline, play tag. After 15 minutes of exercise, tell him you are going to do 15-20 minutes of work but you will take a 5 minute break in between. "Chunk" up the activity and reward him if he stays attentive for 10 minutes with something he really likes. If I had to pick three things that work really well, they would be:

    "Chunking" the task
    Timers so he knows how much time is left (visual timers like the Time Timer are great at this age
    Rewards that are meaningful (more screen time, a coveted snack)

    I have just finished an entire book on therapies that are not medications that you may want to look at. It covers a lot of ground.

    Keep me posted on how he does.


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