Busting Food Myths with Nicole Senior

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Myth: Sugar causes hyperactivity in children.

Nicole Senior

Fact: Food is not a big causal factor in hyperactivity, and sugar is not the culprit.
The scientific jury is in – sugar is not to blame for hyperactivity in children. There is no good evidence and no plausible mechanism, however food may still play a part– especially for a small minority of children. Sugar per se is not implicated in hyperactivity but it is found in many foods such as confectionary and soft drinks which also contain chemicals a small number of sensitive children can react to.

Hyperactivity is now known as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and covers a spectrum of difficult behaviours. It has a strong genetic basis and can be affected by a variety of physiological and environmental factors including exposure to alcohol and smoking in the womb. A small number of children are sensitive to food colours and preservatives which can result in adverse behavioural symptoms like those of ADHD. It is thought these chemicals behave more like a drug than a food on the nervous system of sensitive individuals, affecting mood, attention, concentration and impulsivity.

The idea that food colours and preservatives might influence children’s behaviour was reinforced by the Southampton study published in the prestigious Lancet medical journal. It identified six colours associated with adverse behavioural effects in children: sunset yellow (E110), quinoline yellow (E104), carmoisine (E122), allura red (E129), tartrazine (E102) and ponceau 4R (E124). It could not conclude a specific effect of the preservative benzoate (E211). While this study attracted worldwide media attention and calls to ban these colours in the UK, the study has since been criticised on methodological grounds casting doubt over its conclusions. The amount of colours given to the study children was very much greater than children typically eat in the UK or abroad, and the effects were weak and inconsistent. The European Food Safety Authority found insufficient grounds to change the approved status of the additives used.

Food and behaviour studies are notoriously hard to construct and control because children’s behaviour is so easily influenced by their social setting, parenting, peer influences and individual factors. Perhaps sugar is found in children’s party foods and they are simply responding to the expectation of a party? Maybe sugar is merely fuel for their childish energy? The myth about sugar and hyperactivity is so entrenched there is significant bias in parent’s observations too. In one study parents were asked to rate their kids behaviour after a sweet drink and were told it had lots of sugar when an artificial sweetener was secretly used instead- they all said the kids behaviour was worse. Another difficulty is food chemical sensitivities are difficult to diagnose- there are no blood tests. It takes the skills of a specialist dietitian and an able and committed parent to complete an elimination diet and re-challenge needed to identify food chemical intolerance in a hyperactive child.

Emerging research is examining whether lack of long chain omega-3 fats are contributing to developmental brain disorders such as ADHD. Australian researcher Dr Natalie Simm has found up to 40-50% of children in her research with ADHD symptoms associated improved with omega-3 supplementation over a 30 week period. Part of the solution toward better behaved children may be eating more fish rather than hiding the sugar bowl- and it’s good for their heart as well.


If you’d like reliable information and great recipes on Nicole’s usual favourite subject of heart health click HERE.

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