Tantrums, Preservatives and Additives

Diet and Behavioural Problems in Children

You’ve been told that it’s just the terrible twos/threes/fours, but you suspect that it’s something more than that.

Hyperactivity, aggression, uncontrollable temper tantrums, anxiety and inattentiveness are all behavioural symptoms that could be related to your child’s diet.

There is increasing evidence to suggest that diet plays a significant role in the behaviour of young children. Artificial colours, additives and sugar have all been implicated in behavioural problems, but what is the evidence behind these claims?

Diet and hyperactivity

In 1973 a paediatrician named Dr Ben Feingold presented findings on his observations regarding the link between certain foods and additives, and their effects on children. Dr Feingold stated that artificial colours and flavours caused hyperactivity in children and urged the scientific community to carry out further research and test his hypothesis1.

Additives and Childrens Behaviour

Over the next few years, scientists carried out studies to test Feingolds’ hypothesis,

Over the next few years, scientists carried out studies to test Feingolds’ hypothesis, some of these studies supported his theory2, others appeared to disprove it3.

In 1983, a group of scientists were researching the effect of diet on children suffering from migraines. 88 children with severe and moderate migraine were put on a strictly controlled, five day elimination diet.

93% of the children recovered from their migraines when they were on this strict elimination diet (which removed chemical preservatives and refined sugar as well as known migraine trigger foods)4. As an interesting side note, the researchers also noted that other symptoms such as abdominal pain, behaviour disorders, fits, asthma and eczema also improved on the diet.

The Southampton 7

In 2007, the Food Standards Agency (FSA) commissioned a study into a range of artificial additives, to determine what effect they had on children. The additives studied were the artificial colours: Tartrazine (E-102), Quinolone Yellow (E104), Sunset Yellow (E110), Carmoisine (E122), Ponceau 4R (E124), Allura Red (E129); and the preservative, Sodium Benzoate (E211).

The study looked at the effects of these additives on a group of primary school children who showed significant hyperactivity both at home and in class after having consumed them5.

Following the results of the study, the FSA called for a ‘voluntary ban’ of the additives by food agencies. The European Parliament decreed in the same year that any food products sold in the EU that contained any of the colourings must contain the warning, “may have an adverse effect on activity and attention in children.”6,7 The US Food and Drugs Administration (FDA) made no changes following the study and allowed food companies in the US to continue using these additives without a warning.

Neither of the European voluntary bans apply to Sodium Benzoate (E211), despite the inclusion of this preservative in the Southampton study, and even with its proven adverse effect on children. E211 is often used in carbonated drinks, jams, pickles and fruit juices.

Current use of artificial colours and preservatives

Many of the large UK supermarkets have taken steps to ban the Southampton artificial colours and preservatives from their own brand food and drinks. However, it is not illegal to be sold a product containing these additives in the UK so it would be wise to be vigilant when checking labels. US food companies are not required to add a warning to their products containing these artificial colours and additives, as a result they are still widely used in food aimed at children.

Other very commonly used preservatives, deemed to be safe for consumption by children, include potassium sorbate (found in fruit cordials and baked goods) and calcium propionate (commonly used in bakery products).

POTASSIUM SORBATE is produced on an industrial scale by neutralizing sorbic acid with potassium hydroxide to create a soluble white salt. Pure potassium sorbate is a skin, eye and respiratory irritant. In in vitro studies, scientists have demonstrated that potassium sorbate is genotoxic, mutagenic, and damages DNA molecules of white blood cells, potentially damaging the immune system8.

CALCIUM PROPIONATE is used widely in bread buns, bread loaves, pizza and other bakery products to prevent mould growth. In 2002 a study in the Journal of Paediatric Child Health stated that chronic exposure of children to this preservative could induce a number of behavioural changes. These changes included irritability, restlessness, inattention and sleep disturbances – all of which were reversible upon removal of this preservative from their diet.9

Calcium Propionate and Childrens Behaviour
Calcium Propionate , commonly used in processed bread products, is linked to behavioural problems in children

Children are more susceptible

Just because these preservatives are approved for use in our food, does not automatically mean that they are safe for your child to eat and/or drink. Children can be sensitive to any chemical preservatives that they ingest, and the effects are often magnified due to their small size and therefore proportionately larger chemical dose when they eat a processed food product.

A note on sugar

Despite the widely held belief that children react badly to high doses of sugar, scientific studies do not provide evidence to support this10.

sugar and behaviour disorders in children


It is thought that the hyperactivity in children, which parents blame on sugar, may either be related to the context in which the sugar is consumed (e.g. high spirits after a birthday party), or is the result of exposure to the artificial preservatives and additives present in the sugary food.

Clean-eating children

Modern food is quick and convenient, which all parents are appreciative of. But convenience comes at a price, and for some children those chemical additives are seriously and adversely affecting their physical and mental wellbeing.

All children can benefit from eating an increased amount of fresh, whole foods, free from additives and refined sugars. You can find some easy recipes and articles related to clean-eating for children here.

Yes it will take a bit more time to cook from scratch, but you may be surprised by the immediate effect your efforts have on the wellbeing and behaviour of your children.

Article References:

  1. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/7432837
  2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/781610
  3. http://ldx.sagepub.com/content/16/6/324.abstract
  4. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/6137694?dopt=Abstract
  5. http://eprints.soton.ac.uk/145999/
  6. http://www.food.gov.uk/business-industry/guidancenotes/labelregsguidance/labellingfoodcoloursreg13332008
  7. http://www.actiononadditives.com/.
  8. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0887233309003853
  9. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1046/j.1440-1754.2002.00009.x/abstract
  10. http://jama.jamanetwork.com/article.aspx?articleid=391812.


About the author: 

Sonia Nicholas is a Biomedical Scientist and Freelance Clinical Science Writer & Editor. She has been working in the field of clinical science for fifteen years.

Sonia believes that everyone can improve their health by eating a clean diet – a claim that scientific research increasingly supports. Sonia also believes that healthy, clean eating is accessible to all and doesn’t have to be an expensive lifestyle choice.

All of the articles are evidence based and fully scientifically referenced.

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Medial disclaimer: This article is not intended as medical advice. If you intend to make any significant changes to your child’s diet you should consult your doctor who can provide appropriate nutritional advice.



Main image credit: Pixabay

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