How Food Additives Affect Our Health

Generally, infants and children are more vulnerable to food additives. This is because their immature digestive systems cannot break down the chemicals efficiently. Symptoms triggered by this can include poor attention and concentration, anxiety, irritability, restlessness, waking during the night, bedwetting, temper tantrums, hives, eczema, skin rashes, headaches, sinusitis, tinnitus, ‘irritable bowel’, constipation, asthma, frequent colds and flu.

Diet and Behaviour

Diet and Behaviour

Although sugar is often blamed for causing hyperactivity and behavioural issues in children, reactions to foods are more likely to be caused by the additives that are often included in sugary products (eg. red jelly).

Studies have shown that the food additives most likely to be affecting children’s behaviour are tartrazine (102), propionate (282), artificial colours (102, 110, 122, 124) and benzoate (211).  

Interestingly, treating children’s behaviour with diet still remains controversial, with some Government health bodies advising against changing a child’s diet as a routine part of therapy. However, The Centre for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) has accused these groups, as well as professional organisations in the food industry of ignoring the body of evidence that links additives to reduced attention span, restlessness, sleep disturbances and argumentative behaviour; all of which are symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). As a Naturopath and mother myself, I would strongly recommend that parents consider dietary changes as the first course of children for children with behavioural issues, before medicating.

How to spot reactions and what to do

Unless symptoms occur within a short time frame of eating, it is difficult to ascertain what is causing reactions. Symptoms may take several weeks to present due to a cumulative effect of eating the foods in question. The exception to this is where a child binges on something that is particularly high in preservatives, flavourings and colourings. A link between cause and effect is most likely to be made clearer once the foods in question are eliminated from their diet for a period of time (usually 2-6 weeks).

For optimal wellness, providing children with a diet based on whole, fresh food, with limited processed foods, is the surest bet.

What to avoid

What to avoid

Most food additives serve a purpose and therefore avoiding all foods that contain additives may unnecessarily restrict the child’s diet. Balance is the key. For instance, beta-carotene is a natural yellow plant colouring that not only brings desired pigments to food products, but has known benefits for health. On the other hand, annatto (160b) is also a natural colouring, found in particularly high amounts in confectionary, yet it can be problematic for some, causing adverse reactions. In this case, natural isn’t always safe.

Flavour enhancers are another cause of confusion. Most of these are glutamates found naturally in foods such as tomatoes, mushrooms, broccoli and spinach. In their natural state, they are readily digested without effects. However, they are most often extracted and added to flavoured noodles, crackers, chips and stock, and may cause reactions. Mono-sodium glutamate (MSG 621) is one of these which is widely known for its potentially undesirable effects.

Additives aren’t always the culprit.

It is important to note that while some children are sensitive to food additives it could also be other naturally occurring compounds within foods that they can’t tolerate. Sensitivity to salicylates and amines is common. To ascertain what suspected components are causing grief, it may be necessary to embark on a food challenge, carefully monitoring symptoms with ingestion. This should be done under the supervision of a health practitioner.

Do food labels help?

Do food labels help?

Manufacturers must identify what food additives are included in a food product, by labelling the additive by code number. This reduces confusion, however, you should still be aware that products advertised as ‘natural’ or having ‘no artificial colours and preservatives’ may still contain natural components which are associated with possible detrimental effects.

Relying on organic food for pesticide-free nutrition is encouraged; as organic foods are proven to be higher in nutritional status and therefore great value for money. Nevertheless, we can’t always assume that all organic foods are additive-free. For instance, most dried fruits contain sulphites which can cause allergies and allergy-like symptoms in certain people. As consumers and parents, we must stay informed about food additives, read labels, and support products and food manufacturers who actively seek to produce real food which not only brings health benefits to our family but tastes great too.


  1. Loblay R. Swain A. Soutler V, Friendly Foods, Murdoch Books,  Australia, 2004
  2. Dengate S. Fed up with Children’s Behaviour.
  3. Dengate S. ADHD Fact Sheet, 2007,
  4. Department of Health Victoria, 2007. Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder
  5. Jacobson M. Schardt M. Diet, ADHD and behaviour: a quarter century review. Washingoton DC, Centre for Science in the Public Interest. 1999