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The effects of a double blind, placebo controlled, artificial food colourings and benzoate preservative challenge on hyperactivity in a general population sample of preschool children
  1. B Bateman1,
  2. J O Warner1,
  3. E Hutchinson3,
  4. T Dean5,
  5. P Rowlandson4,
  6. C Gant5,
  7. J Grundy5,
  8. C Fitzgerald3,
  9. J Stevenson2
  1. 1Infection, Inflammation and Repair Division, University of Southampton, Southampton, UK
  2. 2Department of Psychology, University of Southampton, Southampton, UK
  3. 3Department of Clinical Psychology, St Mary’s Hospital, Isle of Wight, UK
  4. 4Department of Paediatrics, St Mary’s Hospital, Isle of Wight, UK
  5. 5David Hide Asthma and Allergy Research Centre, St Mary’s Hospital, Isle of Wight, UK
  1. Correspondence to:
    Professor J Warner
    University Child Health, Southampton General Hospital, Tremona Road, Southampton SO16 6YD, UK;


Aims: To determine whether artificial food colourings and a preservative in the diet of 3 year old children in the general population influence hyperactive behaviour.

Methods: A sample of 1873 children were screened in their fourth year for the presence of hyperactivity at baseline (HA), of whom 1246 had skin prick tests to identify atopy (AT). Children were selected to form the following groups: HA/AT, not-HA/AT, HA/not-AT, and not-HA/not-AT (n = 277). After baseline assessment, children were subjected to a diet eliminating artificial colourings and benzoate preservatives for one week; in the subsequent three week within subject double blind crossover study they received, in random order, periods of dietary challenge with a drink containing artificial colourings (20 mg daily) and sodium benzoate (45 mg daily) (active period), or a placebo mixture, supplementary to their diet. Behaviour was assessed by a tester blind to dietary status and by parents’ ratings.

Results: There were significant reductions in hyperactive behaviour during the withdrawal phase. Furthermore, there were significantly greater increases in hyperactive behaviour during the active than the placebo period based on parental reports. These effects were not influenced by the presence or absence of hyperactivity, nor by the presence or absence of atopy. There were no significant differences detected based on objective testing in the clinic.

Conclusions: There is a general adverse effect of artificial food colouring and benzoate preservatives on the behaviour of 3 year old children which is detectable by parents but not by a simple clinic assessment. Subgroups are not made more vulnerable to this effect by their prior levels of hyperactivity or by atopy.

  • artificial food colouring
  • benzoate preservatives
  • hyperactivity
  • atopy
  • double blind placebo controlled challenge
  • ADHD, attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder
  • APHR, aggregated parental hyperactivity ratings
  • AT, atopy
  • ATH, aggregated test hyperactivity
  • BCL, Behaviour Checklist
  • HA, hyperactivity
  • WWP, Weiss–Werry–Peters Activity Scale

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  • The research reported in this paper was funded by research grants from the Food Standards Agency, UK (Grant: FS 3015) and the South West Regional Research and Development Directorate. Smith Kline Beecham contributed to the challenge materials.

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