How food is responsible for behavioral issues in children

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Your child eats a bag of brightly colored candy and within an hour is bouncing off the walls (literally). Naturally, you assume the sugar is to blame. But is it just the sugar?

According to the US Center for Disease Control, the national rate of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder or ADHD (which now encompasses attention deficit disorder or ADD) diagnosis increased an average of 3% per year from 1997 to 2006, and an average of 5.5% per year from 2003 to 2007. In 2007, approximately 9.5% of American children 4-17 years of age (5.4 million) were diagnosed with ADHD.

These numbers are absolutely insane!

While the causes of behavioral issues are not entirely known and likely to vary, numerous studies suggest that certain ingredients, particularly those found in processed foods, are triggering behavioral problems in children. With 90% of the average American’s food budget going towards processed foods, and the astounding spike in behavioral issues, this is a serious public health concern.

Food dyes

Over the past 50 years, chemical dyes used in foods has increased by a whopping 500%. A total of nine synthetic dyes are used by food manufacturers in the US, but 3 dyes (Red 40, Yellow 5 and Yellow 6) make up 90% of the market. These dyes are everywhere, from cereal to toothpaste, apple sauce to cough syrup.

Studies dating back to the seventies have found that removing these dyes from a child’s diet has a profound effect, about a quarter of the effect of prescribed ADHD medicine.

Warning labels for synthetic food dyes are required in much of Europe, and concerns about the dyes have even caused some governments to ban their use (to see other food additives that have banned by other countries yet are still allowed for use in the US, click here). In response to this legislation and public concern, certain American companies like Kellogg’s, General Mills and Kraft have completely done away with artificial dyes in their products sold overseas, though the dyes remain in their products sold to the American-market.


Though in 2011 the US FDA (Food and Drug Administration) voted against putting warning labels on foods containing synthetic dyes in the US, some American stores such as Whole Foods do not sell products containing artificial dyes.


Celiac disease and gluten intolerance is becoming increasingly common: it is estimated that 1 in every 133 individuals has celiac disease, and that up to 8% of all individuals experience gluten intolerance.

Children and adults with undiagnosed celiac disease have a much higher risk of ADHD than the general population. One study found that amongst a test group of individuals diagnosed with ADHD, 15% tested positive for celiac disease. This is a markedly higher incidence than is found in the general population, which sees a 1% rate. Once these individuals started a gluten-free diet, they (or their parents in the case of children) reported significant improvements in their behavior and functioning.


Soy can be found in most processed foods nowadays, from infant formula to bread. While this so-called “health food” has been linked to several health ailments, the problem with soy here is that fact that it is extremely high in manganese. Though an essential nutrient, when consumed in excess, manganese becomes a potent neurotoxin. Mounting evidence shows that excessive exposure to manganese increases the risk of neurological problems, learning disabilities, developmental disorders, mental health disorders, and ADHD.


Aspartame has been linked to an array of emotional and behavioral disorders. High levels of aspartame can alter serotonin levels, which can lead to behavioral problems, anxiety, and other emotional disorders. In some studies, the side effects were so severe that doctors were forced to prematurely end the studies.


MSG (monosodium glutamate) is an excitotoxin, a type of neurotoxin that essentially excites your brain cells to death. It has profound effects on the mood and behavior of children in particular. According to neurosurgeon Russell Blaylock, author of Excitotoxins: The Taste That KillsMSG crosses the blood/brain barrier and can cause the developing nerve fibers to be miswired.

MSG is found in most fast foods as well as processed meats, frozen meals, soup mixes, salad dressings and many other processed foods. Unfortunately, there are numerous pseudonyms for MSG that may appear on ingredient labels that you need to look out for: hydrolyzed protein, autolyzed yeast, sodium caseinate.

Sources and further reading


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  1. Some of you people need to remember that many American’s cannot afford to eat a 95% organic non-gmo diet. So, Samantha until you can personally make it affordable to eat 95% Non-gmo and organic for everyone in this country, humble yourself and realize every child and every family has a story to tell. At least their family is willing to pack a lunch which is overall better than the dog food most school cafeterias serve.

  2. That’s so great that you send healthy suggestions home with kids, Samantha. I’m sure it is frustrating to see young kids eating these foods, particularly when you know how bad they are and the effects they have!

  3. I am a kindergarten teacher. Every year I am seeing an increase of behavioral issues in my students. I strongly believe the American diet has a lot to do with it. I see the processed foods and drinks kids bring in their lunches and snacks. I have tried sending home quality nutrition lunch/ snack suggestions but it seems its easier to buy what’s cheep and convenient. Personally my family eats 95 % organic and GMO free foods. I prefer to know what’s in my food.

  4. Wow, Judie. That is amazing! It’s so great that you were able to pinpoint her particular sensitivities.

  5. My daughter was diagnosed with PDD-NOS at 2. We detoxed her diet and two weeks later she was diagnosed as developmentally normal. The change in her behavior was amazing. She is four now and still to this day if she has processed food especially Red dye 40, she is in great physical pain and her behavior changes greatly. The effects can last for days.

  6. Absolutely correct! We finally figured this truth out as well, and were able to eliminate medications for both my 6 year old daughter and myself, both. Phenols (salicylates and petroleum products (dyes, artificials) are to blame. We strictly adhere to the Feingold Diet. Natural salicylates are present in a lot of high antioxidant foods, and I’ve read that gelatin in your diet helps to detoxify them properly. Sulfur may play a role in that detox pathway as well. It’s so great to be well informed! 🙂

  7. Just a caution that some of the natural food colorings and additives can cause severe reactions as well. While I am not a fan of food colorings and we try to eat a very clean gluten free diet, for us (and others) annatto causes far worse behavioral and emotional side effects than the numbered food dyes cause and the effect lasts days longer. Annatto is also a common cause of IBS symptoms. I used to just have to watch for it in dairy products (real & fake — anything yellowish in color) but now it’s showing up in lots of baked goods too. If you are still seeing reactions at times I would consider looking at Annatto and other things that show up even in these “healthier” versions of foods (especially packaged foods nut not limited to)

  8. This is so scary… Makes me want to move back to Germany right now. Something is seriously wrong with the FDA. Aren’t they supposed to keep us healthy? Isn’t that their whole purpose of existence??

  9. My daughter has many Aspergers traits, but removing gmo’s especially beet sugar, corn, soy, canola and cottonseed we have seen a huge improvement in her behavior and the overall health of our entire family 🙂

  10. Heather May – when my parents give my kids non-approved foods, I know it… I call them and say “what did you give them” because we are experiencing the side effects… I tell them they are only allowed to break the food rules if they keep them till bedtime. Haha. 😉

  11. Amen!! And if no one believes this post, they are welcome to spend a day with my 5 year old after he has ingested some food dyes. It took 6 months to get a clear diagnosis that he is allergic to food dyes because he had a terrible unexplainable rash on his face that we could not figure out the root cause of. I wouldn’t give up and I took him to the dermatologist every 2 weeks for 4 months. Finally the evidence mounted that it was his blue toothpaste, my diet iced tea, and the occasional Dorito that Daddy would bring home. The common denominator was blue 1 and yellow 6. Since that time we have read every label and stopped purchasing many items that we used to. It send us on a food journey. I make just about everything from scratch for all 5 of my children. His behavior improved so much it was wonderful. I knew he was a great kid, but sometimes he would have outbursts. Now he is so reasonable and well behaved. He had a great year in Kindergarten, but every now and then something would slip by and we would know when it happened because he would get a rash around the mouth, and he would start getting in trouble at school. I consider us lucky because he does get a rash, otherwise how would we have ever known. We’ve also felt that so many kids in the U.S. must have this same problem, but not everyone develops a rash from exposure, so no wonder kids are having so many problems. They are being exposed on a daily basis to toxic ingredients. I’m thankful for our journey and I’m thankful for blogs like this who help us all make informed choices for our families.

  12. I recently switched my family to an all organic diet – with an emphasis on reducing sugars at the same time. You would not believe their energy levels now! It is amazing to see the difference in their behaviors too. My family actually said it would harm them to eat organically and they (my parents) sneak in hotdogs and sodas whenever they can! I am amazed that we don’t question what people add to our foods but show concern when they begin to eat the way food was intended. Take for instance tortillas – storebought ave over 15 ingredients –homemade (which taste better) require 5. Water, flour, baking soda, oil. Makes you wonder…