Do you or someone in your family experience learning, mood, or behavior difficulties? Maybe your child struggles with poor self-control, disruptive behavior, or inappropriate aggression. As an adult, maybe you find yourself dealing with irritability, distraction, rashes, and restless sleep. Have you tried a few different approaches and still find yourself having difficulty? One solution that has worked for many people is to adopt a diet free of artificial colors and other additives. As you’ll see below, there’s a substantial body of research backing such an approach.
If you search online or look for books in the library on the topic of eliminating artificial colors and other additives from the diet, the most prominent name that surfaces is the Feingold Association. For more than 40 years, this organization has provided information and assistance to families who want to try a simple elimination diet.
The Feingold philosophy is that chronic intake of artificial chemicals and additives can upset a person’s system and cause or worsen behavioral difficulties. Many people who have tried the Feingold program have seen positive results over time, including improvements in behavior and learning. The website Feingold.org is replete with such stories, along with a comprehensive and detailed overview of relevant studies.
In recent years, studies published in The Lancet, Pediatrics, the Journal of Pediatrics, and other journals suggest that some children with ADHD, in particular, are adversely affected by food additives. The research also suggests that additives can contribute to ADHD-type symptoms. The editor of the AAP Grand Rounds, the official journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, wrote in 2008 that findings from a recent trial required that “even we skeptics, who have long doubted parental claims of the effects of various foods on the behavior of their children admit we might have been wrong.”
What Are the Culprits?
Let’s look at the four categories of artificial additives that are considered the most likely culprits: colors, flavors, preservatives, and sweeteners. (Natural additives like beta carotene, chlorophyll, red beets, and turmeric are not problematic.)
Colors: Seven artificial colors are currently permitted in food in the United States: Blue N (brilliant blue), Blue No. 2 (indigotine), Green No. 3 (fast green), Red No. 40 (allura red), Red No. 3 (erythrosine), Yellow No. 5 (tartrazine), and Yellow No. 6 (sunset yellow). They will show up on the food label in the ingredients list preceded by “FD&C,” which stands for “foods, drugs, and cosmetics,” as in “FD&C Yellow No. 5.”
As if this weren’t problematic enough, unfortunately, many more colors are allowed in medications. Another shortcoming for these additives is that they are made of coal tar, a form of petroleum, which is considered a carcinogen. Many countries, including Norway, Finland, and France, have banned most of these artificial additives, and the European Union requires a warning notice on most foods containing dyes. Research has linked their consumption to increases in irritability, restlessness, and hyperactivity.
According to a publication from the Center for Science in the Public Interest, called Food Dyes, a Rainbow of Risks, just three dyes – Red 40, Yellow 5, and Yellow 6 – account for 90 percent of all dyes used. And FDA data show a dramatic five-fold increase in consumption of dyes since 1955. That increase reflects Americans’ increasing reliance on processed foods, such as soft drinks, breakfast cereals, candies, snack foods, baked goods, frozen desserts, and even pickles and salad dressings, all of which contain dyes.
The same organization charges on its website that “food dyes serve to deceive consumers by simulating healthy, colorful fruits and vegetables.” The organization calls for a ban on all artificial dyes in the United States, considering their adverse impact on children and how easy it is to replace them with safe, natural ingredients.
Flavors: These are chemically-synthesized compounds added to foods to imitate or enhance natural flavor. Among the many thousands of artificial flavors in use, the ones that most concern nutrition advocates are monosodium glutamate (MSG), disodium inosinate, disodium guanylate, and vanillin.
Regrettably, many kosher products still use MSG. Among other foods, it is found in canned soups, chicken and beef stocks, potato chips, frozen dinners, and seasoning mixtures. MSG is considered an excitotoxin, a class of chemicals that overstimulate neurons, causing them to fire at a very rapid rate, which leads to their death over time. Excitotoxins tend to do the most damage in the parts of the brain that control behavior and emotions. (Read more on this fascinating topic at experiencelife.com/article/excitotoxins.)
Preservatives: Jane Hersey, director of the Feingold Association, calls these additives the “troublesome antioxidants,” in her book Why Can’t My Child Behave? The ones considered suspect are BHT, BHA, TBHQ, and sodium benzoate. Pediatric nutritionist Elizabeth Strickland, author of the book Eating for Autism, writes that children who have unhealthy detoxification systems may have trouble eliminating toxins like BHT and BHA from their bodies. This can show up as behavior and mood problems, according to Strickland.
Sweeteners: These manmade compounds are many times sweeter than sucrose, table sugar. Most common are saccharin (Sweet’N Low), sucralose (Splenda), and aspartame (NutraSweet and Equal). A lab study done in 2006 found that the combination of aspartame and food coloring was synergistic: that is, the combination was more toxic to developing nerve cells than the effect either one individually. Aspartame, like MSG, is also considered to be an excitotoxin. There is some consensus among health professionals that people with conditions like ADHD, autism, and other neurological, behavioral, and psychological difficulties may be more susceptible to the effects of aspartame on the brain. When sensitive individuals drink an aspartame-sweetened drink, which is heavily concentrated with only two amino acids, there is a sudden and unnatural dose of only two amino acids. This may disrupts the sensitive balance among neurotransmitters in the brain and may result in a neurological imbalance, possibly aggravating mood and behavior problems. (From Eating for Autism.)
If you’re interested in getting started with eliminating additives, below is a quick step-by-step guide I’ve put together:
1) Eliminate most commercial soft drinks, fruit drinks, and fruit punches. Substitute, as occasional treats, fruit juice (in very small amounts), natural sodas (such as the Zevia brand), or fruit spritzers.
2) Make muffins, cakes, and cookies from scratch, if possible. If you do use a mix, look for ones free of dyes and vanillin. Many additive-free varieties are available at Whole Foods, MOM’s (My Organic Market, in Timonium), and in Seven Mile Market’s health food aisle.
3) If you use cold cereal, make sure it is free of artificial additives. Better yet, for your body and budget, is to have oatmeal or other hot cereal, adding fruit and natural sweetener to taste.
4) Eliminate Jell-O and similar products with artificial coloring and flavors. Use only unsweetened. The ingredient list of Kolatin sweetened kosher gelatin reads like a chemical soup. Please avoid it.
5) If you or a family member is sensitive to artificial ingredients in food, check all medications for artificial ingredients and work with your physician and pharmacist to find acceptable alternatives. Do not stop any medication without consulting your physician. Doing away with artificial additives is not a cure-all or stand-alone treatment for any emotional, behavioral, or psychiatric condition. Rather, the diet is best used as an adjunct to other evidenced-based treatments. You should not go off any medication or discontinue any therapy or treatment that you or a family member is currently doing to help manage symptoms. Instead, seek out a complete evaluation by your medical provider. For in-depth personalized nutritional help, contact an LDN (licensed dietician/nutritionist).
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Here are two quick additive-free snack recipes from the Feingold Association, slightly modified:
3/4 c. peanut butter
1/3 c. honey
1 T. water or non-dairy milk
1 beaten egg
1/2 c. shredded coconut (sulfite-free)
3/4 c. rolled oats
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Cream peanut butter and honey, then mix in water and egg. Blend in coconut and rolled oats. Press into lightly greased 8x8” baking dish. Mixture will be about a half-inch deep. Bake for 10-15 minutes.
Best Ever Gingersnaps
1 beaten egg
1/2 to1 c. natural sugar (Florida Crystals or Wholesome Sweeteners)
1/4 c. molasses
1 tsp. cinnamon
1/2 tsp. ground ginger
2 1/2 tsp. baking soda
1 1/4 tsp. sea salt
2 c. of whole grain flour (wheat, spelt, kamut, or gluten-free flour mixture)
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Mix first nine ingredients in order given. Form into 1-inch balls. Arrange on an ungreased, parchment paper-lined baking or cookie sheet and bake for 10 minutes. Makes about four dozen.
Lauren Mirkin CNS, LDN, LCPC is a licensed nutritionist and professional counselor. Please contact her for information about her comprehensive integrative nutrition counseling services, workshops and classes. She can be reached at 443-326-7023 or firstname.lastname@example.org.