Food for thought: No proof of a link between hyperactivity and food additives

Eating sugary cereals like Lucky Charms or Fruity Pebbles may not be the healthiest thing for your child, but according to the Food and Drug Administration, it’s not going to make him hyperactive either.

That’s the consensus of an expert panel of doctors, scientists and researchers, who were asked by the FDA, to evaluate the relationship between hyperactivity and dyes used to color children’s food. After two days of deliberation the panel ruled that there isn’t enough scientific evidence to establish a link between the two. The meetings were the result of a 2008 petition from the Center for Science in the Public Interest, an advocacy group that says coloring agents in foods like JELL-O, Lucky Charms and Pop-Tarts can be directly linked to the rising number of attention deficit and hyperactivity disorders (ADHD) in this country.

The idea that food additives could influence behavior and neurological development has been around for years, but as the FDA noted, there is a lack of scientific evidence to prove it. So if the science and medical communities are unconvinced of the relationship, why are many of these theories still so popular? For many parents it comes down to wanting answers so badly they’re willing to believe almost anything.

“In the absence of a definitive, clear and explained answer to the question, ‘what is going on with my child?’ people who offer simplistic, unproven and sometimes harmful answers to the question will always have a voice,” says William Barbaresi, MD, associate chief of the Division of Developmental Medicine at Children’s Hospital Boston. “On one hand, parents have doctors telling them that treatment, when combined with educational and behavioral intervention, can improve their child’s life. On the other hand they’ve got someone on the internet saying that all they have to do is avoid food with red dye and their child will be better. Which answer is easier to understand?”

Bill Barbaresi, MD

But simply wanting to believe something doesn’t make it true, and when it comes to something as important as your children’s health, Barbaresi says parents should trust methods that have been proven to work.

“Parents raising a child who is challenged by a condition like ADHD have a limited amount of time, energy and other resources,” he says. “Consequently, our goal is to help parents invest those limited resources into behavioral interventions that are shown by science and research to be effective.”

And while the FDA says it is currently unconvinced of a relationship between food additives and behavior, it says further research on the subject needs to be done. It’s a sentiment Barbaresi agrees with.

“In the absence of an answer of what is precisely is going on in the nervous system of a child with ADHD, it make sense to continue to ask all sorts of questions,” he says.