Food and Behaviour Research

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Synthetic food colourings and 'hyperactivity': a double-blind crossover study.

Rowe, K.S. (1988) Aust Paediatr J.  24(2) 143-7. 

Web URL: View this and related abstracts via PubMed here


Of 220 children referred for suspected 'hyperactivity', 55 were subjected to a 6 week trial of the Feingold diet. Forty (72.7%) demonstrated improved behaviour and 26 (47.3%) remained improved following liberalization of the diet over a period of 3-6 months.

The parents of 14 children claimed that a particular cluster of behaviours was associated with the ingestion of foods containing synthetic colourings.

A double-blind crossover study, employing a single-subject repeated measures design was conducted, using eight of these children. Subjects were maintained on a diet free from synthetic additives and were challenged daily for 18 weeks with either placebo (during lead-in and washout periods) or 50 mg of either tartrazine or carmoisine, each for 2 separate weeks.

Two significant reactors were identified whose behavioural pattern featured extreme irritability, restlessness and sleep disturbance. One of the reactors did not have inattention as a feature.

The findings raise the issue of whether the strict criteria for inclusion in studies concerned with 'hyperactivity' based on 'attention deficit disorder' may miss children who indicate behavioural changes associated with the ingestion of food colourings. Moreover, for further studies, the need to construct a behavioural rating instrument specifically validated for dye challenge is suggested.


This carefully designed double-blind, crossover study showed that - as their parents already suspected - the consumption of certain artificial food colourings (AFC) led to adverse behavioural reactions in some children.

Importantly, the authors point out that the key behavioural characteristics of these children centred on irritability, restlessness and sleep problems, and that not all of them would have met formal diagnostic criteria for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.

Although adverse reactions to AFC have often been reported in children with ADHD (involving hyperactivity, impulsivity and/or inattention), these findings suggest that future research should not be confined only to children with this kind of behavioural profile, because to do so would risk missing some of the children who respond most strongly, and negatively, to AFC.

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