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What do you get when you combine fruit juice with a food dye called Sunset Yellow and the preservative called sodium benzoate? Some researchers in England say you may get more hyperactive behavior in young children. A new study in the British medical journal Lancet tested the effects of these food additives on groups of 3-year-olds and 8-year-olds.
NPR's Allison Aubrey reports.
ALLISON AUBREY: Researchers at the University of Southhampton mixed four types of food dyes with juice and served the concoctions to children multiple times over the course of six weeks. The drinks were mixed to look and taste the same as a juice drink that contained no dyes or preservatives. Neither the children nor their parents were told which drink they were given. Throughout the study, teachers and parents were asked to observe the children's behavior to look for things such as…
Dr. GENE ARNOLD (Professor Emeritus of Psychiatry, Ohio State University) The ability to follow instructions, to finish a task, to respond when spoken to, and to control impulses.
AUBREY: Gene Arnold is a child psychiatrist at Ohio State.
He says the researchers found that some children who drank the juice spiked with additives did act somewhat more inattentive and impulsive than kids who drank the additive-free drinks.
Dr. ARNOLD: There does seem to be some sensitivity to some common food additives, mainly colorings, and then also sodium benzoate - a preservative.
AUBREY: But how strong was the effect? Child psychiatrist Shashank Joshi of Stanford University says the effect was quite small. He says after reviewing the findings, he takes issue with the press release written to promote the study. It read: Food additives increase levels of hyperactivity in children.
Dr. SHASHANK JOSHI (Assistant Professor, Psychiatry and Behavioral Science -Child Psychiatry, Stanford University): I would probably rephrase that and say, some food additives may increase levels of hyperactivity in some children.
AUBREY: Joshi explains that previous studies have shown that kids who are already impulsive and inattentive who may or may not have an attention deficit disorder but do have behavior problems are more likely to be sensitive to food additives. Other children without behavior problems may be less sensitive, and any effect of food dyes and preservatives on their lives wouldn't be noticeable.
Joshi says the new study finds the difference in hyperactive behavior between the kids who drank the juice with additives compared to those who didn't get the additives is only about 10 percent.
Dr. JOSHI: Parents might say, hey, a 10 percent reduction? They'll say, I'll take it. But I think it's important to not take this away and go, you know, if I eliminate all the additives from my kid's diet, it's going to get rid of their hyperkinetic behavior.
AUBREY: Joshi says the study adds to a growing knowledge about the effects of additives and the diet. Some studies testing small amounts of dyes and preservatives have found there are no harmful effects. What's left to be untangled is what combinations of additives at which doses may be worth worrying about.
Allison Aubrey, NPR News, Washington.
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