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[The effects of a double blind, placebo controlled, artificial food colourings and benzoate preservative challenge on hyperactivity in a general population sample of preschool children 2004; 89: 506-11]
Artificial food colourings and preservatives have a "significant" impact on hyperactivity levels in very young children, finds research in Archives of Disease in Childhood.
Removal of these substances could be in the long term interest of public health, say the authors.
The authors base their findings on over 1800 three year old children, who were screened for hyperactivity and allergies.
Almost 300 children, divided into four groups, completed the four week study. During the first week, the children ate only foods free of artificial additives, including colourings, such as tartrazine, sunset yellow, and carmoisine, and the preservative sodium benzoate.
During the second and fourth weeks they were randomly assigned to a daily dose of fruit juice, with or without colourings and preservatives.
The children's behaviour was assessed before the study began and regularly throughout the study period by formal clinical assessment and parental diaries. The parents were unaware which type of juice had been given to their child.
Parental ratings showed that the children became significantly less hyperactive during the period when the additives were removed from the diet, and much more hyperactive when they were put back in.
The authors suggest that for those children with high hyperactivity scores, this translates as a reduction in prevalence from 15% to 6%. But this figure must be interpreted with caution, they say. [email comments; not in paper].
These changes were not reflected in the formal clinic assessments. But the authors suggest that parental ratings might be more sensitive as parents see their children's behaviour over a longer period of time, in more varied settings, and in less optimal conditions.
Children with more extreme forms of hyperactivity were no more or less likely to respond to dietary changes than children at the milder end of the behavioural spectrum. And the effects were seen irrespective of whether the child was hyperactive or allergic before the study began.
Previous research has shown that young hyperactive children are at risk of continuing behavioural difficulties, such as poor social adaptation and educational problems, say the authors, pointing out that there could be a potential long term public health benefit, if this issue were addressed.
"These findings therefore suggest that significant changes in children's hyperactive behaviour could be produced by the removal of artificial colourings and sodium benzoate from their diet," they conclude. Studies should be undertaken to see if the same effects might be seen in older children as well, they suggest.
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