Additives in Food That Can Affect Your Child’s Behaviour

sugar and spice is not always nice
Additives in Food That Can Affect Your Child’s Behaviour: Woman reading product ingredients at grocery store
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The importance of reading food labels cannot be emphasized enough. When choosing foods for you and your family, you should know exactly what you’re consuming. Although it's best to opt for whole, fresh foods or meals made from scratch, there are times when certain packaged foods and snacks are appropriate (or may be necessary for convenience).

When looking at the nutrition and ingredients label, many packaged foods contain additives. These are chemical substances that prolong the shelf life of food, improve its taste, and enhance the appearance by altering colour or texture. Some of these substances have been shown to be fairly benign in the body, but others pose a threat to your health and can even influence the behaviour of your child.

Sugar and its many forms

So how do you identify food additives and which ones should you be worried about? One of the most deceptive additives is sugar. There are multiple forms and names for sugar so it’s important to be able to identify them and limit their consumption as much as possible.

One of the most threatening forms of food sugar for your health is high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS). HFCS has been linked to obesity, arthritis in young adults, insulin resistance, and cardiovascular disease in adolescents. Other names for sugar include: fructose, glucose, brown rice syrup, corn syrup, brown sugar, evaporated cane juice, maltodextrin, caramel, and malt syrup.

A huge problem in Canada is that companies don’t always need to disclose which source of sugar they’re using. For example, most soda labels will say “sugar” but what they actually use is high-fructose corn syrup, as can be found on ingredient labels in the United States. All forms of sugar can increase the hyperactivity of children, especially those who already have been diagnosed with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Correlations have been reported between the increase in sugar consumption and the prevalence of ADHD. This is also true of many artificial sweeteners such as aspartame.

Aspartame and monosodium glutamate (MSG)

Aspartame and MSG both break down into different compounds and amino acids. These amino acids have a direct effect on the brain, causing excessive stimulation which compromises their normal function. This increased activity and the presence of toxic by-products from aspartame create more oxidative stress on the nervous system and therefore can cause damage. Additionally, aspartame has been shown to increase cravings for carbohydrates and sugar, leading to weight gain. Other adverse effects of MSG in children include headaches, swelling, asthma and hives/rashes.

Artificial food colours

Hyperactivity in children, described as inattention and impulsiveness, has also been linked to artificial food colours (AFC). You’ll often see them on labels as FD&C Red 40, Yellow 5 and 6, tartrazine, and erythrosine. There is evidence that eliminating AFCs in the diets of hyperactive children can help prevent symptoms of restlessness, irritability and sleep disturbances. Other studies have shown that these effects aren’t limited to children with a diagnosis of ADHD. Parents who had eliminated AFCs from their child’s diet for two weeks reported that adding AFCs back to the diet lead to an increase in their child’s inattention, overactivity and impulsiveness.

So what should you really be worried about? For many children, food and some additives may not pose an immediate health risk. However, children with health concerns such as eczema, skin rashes, asthma, headaches, and uncharacteristic hyperactive behaviour would do well to avoid these additives. One of the most concerning additives to all children – and parents – is sugar. Sugar in general can be a great source of inflammation in the body, can cause blood sugar dysregulation and insulin resistance, and affects our behaviour and mood. Make sure to label-read every product you intend on purchasing and make yourself aware of what you and your children are consuming. If you feel a little lost or confused with food labels, seek help from a nutritionist, dietician, or naturopathic doctor.


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