Do food additives impact autism and ADHD?

Do food additives impact autism and ADHD?

Do food additives impact autism and ADHD?

Autism and ADHD are two neurodevelopmental disorders that affect millions of people worldwide. Food additives are substances added to food to improve its taste, appearance, texture, and shelf life. They include preservatives, colorants, flavor enhancers, and sweeteners, among others. In this blog, we will explore whether food additives impact autism and ADHD.

“My child becomes hyperactive after eating candies.”

I have heard many mothers say this quite often. Before I begin answering how food additives can affect the behaviour of your child. Let me first clear the air by enlightening you about- what is it, how it can affect your child and where it is found.

So what are food additives?

According to WHO, “Food additives are chemical substances that are added to food to maintain or improve the safety, freshness, taste, texture, or appearance of food.” There are different types of food additives. They are either natural or artificial. What you need to do is to keep an eye on are chemicals like artificial flavour, artificial colour, preservatives, artificial sweeteners and excess sugars.

Sometimes we as parents are not aware that coffee can be used in chocolates or toffees or cakes as a flavour. If the labels are not checked before your child eats it then your child might show signs of nervousness, jitters, headaches, problems with concentration, trouble sleeping, faster heart rate, higher blood pressure and upset stomach depending on the dose of caffeine your child is exposed to.

How it can affect your child?

Some food additives do not have serious impact autism on the body. Those used as colouring agents or preservatives can cause immediate reactions in those children who are sensitive to them. Some artificial food colours can cause allergic reactions or hypersensitive reactions that can cause digestive issues like diarrhoea and colicky pain or nervous disorders like hyperactivity, insomnia and irritability.

These children are not aware that certain foods they eat could be causing these symptoms. You might wonder what happened to your child, why has his/her behaviour changed and the sad part is that their ability to learn a new skill is affected because of the pain they are in or they feel irritated.

Another issue regarding food additives is that the FDA approves an amount deemed to be Generally Recognised As Safe or GRAS which means it is safe enough not to promote diseases like cancer or other co-morbidity. But realistically thinking these foods are man-made chemicals in almost every bite we eat and no one knows the effects on a part of the body or system, be it immune, digestive or nervous system.

Where is it found?

Natural flavourings are used in some foods which are exceptions, while artificial flavourings are found in a wide variety of foods, from confectionery and soft drinks to cereal, cake, and yoghurt. You need to check the ingredient list in the package to decide whether your child can eat the food or not.

There are different types of synthetic food additives. There are twenty-four types of food additives found in the foods we eat: acidity regulators, anti-caking agents, anti-foaming agents, food colouring, colour fixatives, colour retention, emulsifiers, firming agents, flavor enhancers, flour treatment, food acids, gelling agents, glazing agents, humectants, improving agents, mineral salts, preservatives, propellants, seasonings, sequestrants, stabilizers, artificial sweeteners, thickeners, vegetable gums or anything other than natural food ingredients are food additives.

How to recognise food labels?

1. Some food packages mention the following claims-



“This contains (name of the artificial sweetener); Not recommended for children; Quantity of sugar added (gm/100 gm) OR No sugar added in the product

Not for phenylketonuria (If aspartame is added to the product).”

2. Artificial flavor is also a concern in the autism community. A commonly used artificial flavour is monosodium glutamate (MSG).

3. Some researches show that in some children with ASD and ADHD, artificial preservatives can aggravate symptoms. One such research study which was conducted in Schools showed that there was an increase in students’ academic performance and a decrease in disciplinary problems, when all artificial additives like preservatives, were removed from the school food program.

4. We need to understand that just because a food additive has been approved by the Food Drug Administration as Generally Recognised As Safe, this does not necessarily mean it is safe for our children. Sweeteners like aspartame are a perfect example of this fact. Hence you need to be cautious and avoid foods which contain artificial sweeteners from your child’s diet.

5. Completely avoid foods that contain trans-fats. It is found in vegetable shortenings, some kinds of margarine, crackers, cookies, chips, cakes, pies, bread, snack foods, and foods fried, dietary supplements, energy bars, and nutrition bars in partially hydrogenated oils. Once you begin reading food labels, you may be stunned by the number of products that contain partially hydrogenated oils and therefore trans-fat.

These days in Indian households life is a pretty fast-paced lifestyle. We find it hard to find time to use fresh whole foods to prepare home-cooked meals. And, many families are dependent on pre-packaged foods and fast foods for their convenience.

These are some tips that will help you cut down your family’s food additive consumption:

  •  The first step is to find ways to cook at home, so hire a cook or buy cookbooks with healthy recipes to prepare in less than 30 minutes, so that preparing meals from scratch does not take up too much time.
  • Planning meals ahead of time is a stress buster. This gives you a chance to make sure you have or buy the ingredients required on hand.
  • Make extra foods because intentionally freezing extra food is a “time saver”. Leftovers are also better than ready-to-eat or ready-to-cook packaged foods.
  • Children love simple meals, so… keep it simple.

All food additives are not as safe as we thought them to be. There is a safe limit that can prevent a person from showing symptoms. But the damage it does is so minutiae. That the effects are seen over many months or years and we might not know what caused certain symptoms. Some artificial food colours can cause allergic reactions or hypersensitive reactions that can cause digestive issues like diarrhoea and colicky pain or nervous disorders like hyperactivity, insomnia and irritability.

The Science Behind Food Additives and Their impact autism and ADHD

Research on the link between food additives and neurodevelopmental disorders like autism and ADHD is still inconclusive. One of the most widely studied food additives in relation to neurodevelopmental disorders is artificial food colorants. These are added to a variety of foods and beverages, including candy, soda, and processed snacks. Several studies have suggested that artificial food colorants may exacerbate symptoms of hyperactivity and inattention in children with ADHD.

Another group of food additives that has received attention in recent years is monosodium glutamate (MSG) and other flavor enhancers. More studies are needed to fully understand the impact autism of food additives on these conditions. Similarly, some studies have suggested that food additives may play a role in the development of autism. However, this study was small, and further research is needed to confirm these findings.

It is also important to note that not all children with autism or ADHD are affected by food additives. They can help you determine whether certain food additives should be avoided or limited in your child’s diet. It is important to follow a well-balanced and nutritious diet for overall health and well-being.

Suhana Shriyan
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