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Why Parents Need to Beware of What Kids Eat

From food additives and hyperactivity to fast foods and suicidality.

Key points

  • Research shows that, when children eat some types of food colourings, they are more likely to behave hyperactively.
  • Adolescents who consume many carbonated drinks are more likely to have sleep disturbances connected with feeling anxious.
  • Adolescents who consume a lot of fast food are more likely to have suicidal thoughts, according to research.
  • Some researchers suggest that food additives activate certain genetic processes; parents need to beware of what their kids eat.

In a world where people are increasingly concerned about what they eat, you might be wondering whether some of the foods that your children and adolescents eat might be making them more anxious, depressed, or even suicidal. Many parents are understandably concerned about what they are feeding their children so it is important to think about the nutritional value of what you feed your kids and the potential harms of some food additives.

Food colourings and childhood hyperactivity

Food colourings and additives are commonly added to processed meals, fast food, cakes, desserts, ice-creams and soft drinks, giving them more longevity or a pleasant-looking hue or texture that manufacturers think will help the sale of the product. Modern technology and food science have led to fascinating developments in what food can look and taste like through natural or artificial food additives. While many of them are safe for human consumption, research shows that some food additives increase the risk of certain physical or mental health symptoms.

Research shows that children tend to behave hyperactively after eating meals containing some artificial food colourings, and that the hyperactivity reduces after these food additives are removed from the children’s diet. [1] The researchers found that these findings apply whether or not the children have a diagnosis of a hyperactivity disorder such as ADHD. Researchers theorise that some food additives have a harmful effect on childhood behaviour because they activate certain genetic processes [2] which suggest that children who might have a genetic predisposition to some behavioural disorders might want to consider limiting consumption of artificial food additives. Even then, the research shows that children without any formal diagnosis (e.g., ADHD) can also benefit from reducing or stopping their consumption of such food additives.

The UK government’s Food Standards Agency [6] identifies the following food numbers as likely to make children more hyperactive: E102 (tartrazine), E129 (Allura red), E124 (ponceau 4R), E122 (carmoisine), E110 (sunset yellow FCF) and E104 (quinoline yellow). Parents might want to consider not feeding children and adolescents foods containing these additives.

Fast foods and adolescent mental health

There is a lot of evidence that eating processed food, which tends to contain food additives to improve their texture, taste or longevity, is connected with feeling depressed. A study found that, the more that young people ate fast food, cookies, sweets and snacks, the more depressed they felt [3] – although it could be that people who feel depressed tend to turn to such foods, perhaps as comfort treats to help them feel better. Another study examined data from 105,061 adolescents aged 12 to 15 years and sampled from 32 countries. [4] The study found that over half of the adolescents ate fast food, and that those adolescents who did so had a slightly higher risk of attempting suicide than adolescents who did not eat fast food.

Another study of 2742 adolescents aged 12 to 15 years [5] found that those who drank carbonated soft drinks three or more times a day were twice as likely to suffer from disturbed sleep connected with anxiety, compared to adolescents who drank them once or less a day. Likewise, the study found that adolescents who ate fast food thrice or more times a week were over twice as likely to suffer from disturbed sleep related to anxiety, compared to adolescents who did not eat fast food in the preceding week.

For some children and adolescents, feeling depressed might make them feel like buying some fast food or reaching for processed snacks. For those who feel more depressed after eating processed food, the explanation is likely to be multifaceted. Processed food is likely to have fewer essential nutrients because of the ingredients or the manufacturing methods, whereas many essential nutrients are helpful to mental health. As well, it may be the case that processed food has more food additives, and that these are linked with poorer mental health.

Tips for parents

Parents might find it difficult to ascertain which food additives are likely to be harmful and which are not, therefore doing research is important. Some governments provide helpful information, such as the USA’s FDA and UK’s FSA. Many types of fast food, processed food, sweets and soft drinks contain artificial food additives which might not be good for mental health, and that might partially explain why children and adolescents who consume a lot of them are at an increased risk of depression, anxiety, sleep disturbance, and attempted suicide.

Some types of fast food and processed foods (e.g., ready meals) do not contain artificial food additives therefore the key is to read labels and be aware of what your children are eating. Parents should be aware that the question is not simply one of whether an additive is natural or artificial. For example, some artificial additives (that is, those which are chemically manufactured) have no reported human safety concerns, whereas some natural food additives have safety concerns, such as soya which is commonly added to ready meals and processed foods, yet researchers warn parents to consider limiting soya consumption by babies and developing children [7].

If you are about to bake some treats for your family and are choosing among food colourings, if you are considering eating out, or if you are out shopping for family meals and looking at the ingredients on packets, knowing about the mental health implications of food additives can be helpful.

References

[1] Stevenson, J. (2010). Recent research on food additives: Implications for CAMH. Child and Adolescent Mental Health, 15(3), 130-133.

[2] Kaplan, B. J. (2010). Food additives and behavior: first genetic insights. American Journal of Psychiatry, 167(9), 1023-1025.

[3] El Ansari, W., Adetunji, H., & Oskrochi, R. (2014). Food and mental health: relationship between food and perceived stress and depressive symptoms among university students in the United States. Cent Eur J Public Health, 22(2), 90-97.

[4] Jacob, L., Stubbs, B., Firth, J., Smith, L., Haro, J. M., & Koyanagi, A. (2020). Fast food consumption and suicide attempts among adolescents aged 12–15 years from 32 countries. Journal of Affective Disorders, 266, 63-70.

[5] Khan, A., & Uddin, R. (2020). Is Consumption of Fast-Food and Carbonated Soft Drink Associated With Anxiety-Induced Sleep Disturbance Among Adolescents? A Population-Based Study. Clinical Nutrition ESPEN, 36, 162-165.

[6] https://www.food.gov.uk/safety-hygiene/food-additives#food-colours-and-…

[7] Siegel-Itzkovich, J. (2005). Health committee warns of potential dangers of soya. The BMJ, 331(7511), 254.

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