Vol. 1, No. 3 , 1995, Page 5


Many parents report that their hyperactive children react adversely to artificial flavors and colorings. New evidence from a double-blind, placebo-controlled study reported in the prestigious Journal of Pediatrics strongly suggests that such reports, generally discounted by mainstream physicians, are valid.

Katherine and Kenneth Rowe studied three groups of children: 23 hyperactive children believed by their parents to be sensitive to food colorings, 11 hyperactive children whose parents weren't sure if they were sensitive, and 20 controls. All of the children were fed a diet free of synthetic colorings and then given, on a randomized basis, either tartrazine (yellow dye #5) in varying dosages, or a placebo.

Parents blind to the test conditions rated their children's behavior during the tests. Parents identified 24 children (19 of the 23 "reactors," 3 of 11 "uncertain reactors," and two control subjects) who clearly exhibited more behavior disorders during dye administration than during the placebo condition.

"The younger children [who reacted to the dye] had constant crying, tantrums, irritability, restlessness, and severe sleep disturbance, and were described as `disruptive,' `easily distracted and excited,' `high as a kite,' and `out of control,'" the researchers say. "....The older children were described as `irritable,' `aimlessly active,' `lacking self-control,' `whiny and unhappy,' and `like a bear with a sore head.'"

All of the children who reacted to the dye had a history of allergic disorders such as asthma, eczema, or allergic rhinitis. All but two (one of whom was adopted) also had a family history of migraine in at least one first-degree relative.

The Rowes conclude that "behavioral changes in irritability, restlessness, and sleep disturbance are associated with the ingestion or tartrazine in some children." They note that parents noticed symptoms in children even at the lowest doses of the dye administered (1 mg), although behavior disruptions lasted longer at higher doses. "Contrary to prevailing wisdom," they say, "parents were found to be reliable observers and raters of their children's behaviors, and sensitive to variable dosages of synthetic coloring in the context of the double-blind, placebo-controlled design."

The Rowe study supports earlier findings by Bonnie Kaplan et al., whose placebo- controlled cross-over study involved 24 hyperactive boys. Each child's behavior was rated during three phases: a baseline period, when the child ate home-cooked meals; a placebo period when the child ate specially pre-packaged meals which, unknown to the families, were similar in additive levels to the boys' regular meals; and a four-week period when the children ate pre-packaged meals free of additives, artificial colors and flavors, chocolate, MSG, preservatives, and caffeine. Kaplan et al. found that children on the experimental diet had significantly fewer behavior problems, slept through the night more often, and had less trouble falling asleep. Kaplan et al. said their findings "demonstrate a larger potential impact of diet than previously reported."

While several studies have found no connection between food additives and behavior problems, the Rowes suggest that these earlier studies suffered from significant logistical and methodologic flaws. For instance, they note that their study used each child as his or her own control subject because "idiosyncratic reactions to a substance may not be noted if responses are treated as group effects."


"Synthetic food coloring and behavior: A dose response effect in a double-blind, placebo-controlled, repeated-measures study," Katherine S. Rowe and Kenneth J. Rowe, Journal of Pediatrics, November 1994, pp. 691-698. Address: Katherine S. Rowe, MBBS, Dept. of Pediatrics, Univ. of Melbourne, Royal Children's Hospital, Parkville, Victoria 3052, Australia.


"Dietary replacement in preschool-aged hyperactive boys," Bonnie J. Kaplan, Jane McNicol, Richard A. Conte, and H. K. Moghadam, Pediatrics, Vol. 83, No. 1, 1989, pp. 7- 17. Address: Bonnie J. Kaplan, Dept. of Pediatrics, Alberta Children's Hospital, 1820 Richmond Road SW, Calgary, Alberta, T2T 5C7, Canada.

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