Food additives are ubiquitous in packaged foods, and they have been blamed for many health problems despite the lack of evidence one way or another. It’s easy to imagine patient groups or physicians noticing that their particular disease of interest is on the rise, whether asthma or breast cancer, and desperately searching for a cause. Food additives entered the market in the second half of the twentieth century, so they provide a prime suspect for diseases that have worsened during that time. Still, additives have passed the safety standards of the relevant government agencies, and no well-designed study has definitively linked them to any health hazard. Until now.
This week’s issue of The Lancet publishes a study of the effects of food additives on hyperactivity in children. The study attracted much attention from the media, including this article in Time.
The study randomized children to three groups. Each group drank one of three fruit drinks daily. One group drank a drink containing the amount of food coloring and sodium benzoate (a preservative) that is typical in a British child’s diet. The second group drank a drink with lower amounts of coloring and sodium benzoate. The third group drank a drink without any additives. The drinks looked and tasted the same. The kids’ behavior was rated by parents and teachers using standardized behavior questionnaires, and importantly the parents and teachers didn’t know which group the kids were in.
The kids that had the drinks with the additives were significantly more hyperactive. Though the effects weren’t great enough to diagnose ADHD, the author speculates that the effects could diminish learning during school time.
I’ve always been very skeptical about the health concerns surrounding food additives, thinking that it was another manifestation of the misconception that natural substances are safer than artificial substances. But there’s nothing like evidence to overcome my skepticism.
I’m collecting medical myths, and I need your help. Please email me health-related beliefs that lots of people believe but that are false. Thank you.