Is your child inattentive, impulsive, or excessively active?

Parentree-editors 2008-11-03 10:01:45

Do you find your child inattentive, impulsive or excessively active? Is he fidgety ? Is she unable to concentrate?

Read on to find out why it could be due to the foods they eat.

For many years and decades, we have all been consuming packaged, processed foods that contains various kinds of food additives - preservatives, flavouring and food colours. And over the last few years, the consumption of these packaged, processed foods has increased dramatically, as Indian society, parents and children have undergone a cultural transformation. Manufacturers and governments have kept reassuring us that the ingredients used in packaged foods are safe.

However a growing body of scientific research in the US and UK, is pointing fingers at the negative effects of some of the most commonly used food additives.

Latest research

These studies are showing increased hyperactivity (See Parentree's article on hyperactivity & ADHD) in children who consume food with these additives.

While studies have been going on for decades, a study published in the Lancet's (the British medical journal) Sep 2007 issue, has generated a lot of attention. It was conducted by researchers at the University of Southampton, on 153 3-year olds and 144 8/9 year olds. The study found increased hyperactivity when the children were fed with food that contained a mix of various food additives and colors.

This trial generated enormous attention in Europe and various appeals were made to the European Food Safety Agency to ban food additives, but they chose not to do so.

However, the American Association of Pediatrics in its journal Grand Rounds, referenced this study. The AAP editors said "the overall findings of the study are clear and require that even we skeptics, who have long doubted parental claims of the effects of various foods on the behavior of their children, admit we might have been wrong". The commentary attached said "For the child without a medical, emotional, or environmental etiology of ADHD behaviors, a trial of a preservative-free, food coloring–free diet is a reasonable intervention"

Food additives and their use

So what are these food additives and where are they used. There are 1000s of them and we cannot offer a comprehensive list here. A Google search will give you a lot more information.

Here are the colorings and additives used in the study referenced above. We have also listed a few common product categories where these are used.

Food colorings

  • Sunset yellow [E110, Yellow #6] - Jams, jellies, packet soups, soft drinks, sweets, candies, chocolates
  • Carmoisine [E122, Red #3 ] - Jams, jellies, chocolates
  • Tartrazine [E102, Yellow #5] - sweets, candies, chocolates, soft drinks, cereals, icecream, jams, noodles, pickles, fruit juices
  • Ponceau 4R [E124, Red #7] - fruit juices
  • Quinoline yellow [E104, Yellow #13]
  • Allura red AC [E129, Red #17] - soft drinks, children's medications, cotton candy


  • Sodium benzoate [E211] - Jams, soft drinks, pickles, sauces

What should parents do?

  • Inculcate healthy food habits in your children. Lead by example.
  • Use natural fruits and vegetables as much as possible.
  • Avoid processed, pre-packaged food as much as possible. As a practical matter these cannot be eliminated from our lives. You will only stress out if you try to eliminate them. Instead focus on minimizing them.
  • Products like jams,  and pickles are used everyday by us and children. In every city, there are numerous individual suppliers who make these products at home, hygienically. Get recommendations from your friends or look in the local papers. You maybe able to visit these individuals and ask them to make these essential foods without preservatives and food colouring. The products will also be far more fresh than anything from a supermarket shelf.
  • Try and make fresh juice at home, as much as possible

How to check the contents of what I am buying?

Unfortunately in India, food labeling requirements are not very strict. New rules have just been issued (in Sep 2008) which requires manufacturers to put clearer labels listing all the ingredients, on packaged food. However, it is not clear if colors and flavours are considered ingredients.

Some Indian manufacturers may list all their ingredients while others do not. Usually, if a manufacturer lists a food color or additive or preservative, they may put a three digit number next to it (110, 122 etc.,). This number is based on the European Food Safety Agency's numbering specification.

Besides, packaged food makers, even local restaurants, bakeries and sweet shops use food colouring in a number of preparations.

We did a quick walkabout in local stores and raided our own kitchens to read some food labels. Here is what we found from some leading brands:

  • Mango jam -  Sunset yellow [E110, Yellow #6]
  • Mixed fruit jam - Carmoisine [E122, Red #3 ]
  • Fruit juice - Ponceau 4R [E124, Red #7]
  • Tomato sauce - Sodium benzoate [E211]
  • Chocolate - Sunset yellow [E110, Yellow #6], Tartrazine [E102, Yellow #5], Carmoisine [E122, Red #3 ]

All of these additives were used in the study that is mentioned above.

Where can I find more information about specific additives?

You can easily google the web by adding an E in front of the number you see on the food's label. If you see 110, google for E110.

Wikipedia has information on all these additives.

Another good site, is UK Food Guide ( which lists these ingredients and their E numbers. It also provides information on where they are used, their side effects and where they are banned

Also see

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)


1. McCann D, Barrett A, Cooper A, et al. "Food additives and hyperactive behaviour in 3­ year­ old and 8/9­ year­ old children in the community: a randomised, double­blinded, placebo­ controlled trial", Lancet. 2007:370(9598):1560­1567 

2. Alison Schonwald "ADHD and Food Additives Revisited",AAP Grand Rounds,  2008;19;17


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