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When Panic Attacks
When Panic Attacks

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Good Eats: Fuel for Better Living

Mouthful of Trouble

By Deborah Gardiner

The controversy over a potential link between food additives and mood swings has escalated in the face of increasing behavioral problems in U.S. schools.

Raising John Freeman* was a constant peril.

"My son would do monstrous things constantly. He would break his crib to pieces and I would have to put it together with huge nuts and bolts. Then, he'd break it again. ... One day he even shoved the cat down the toilet," said Victor, reliving the torment he and his wife had gone through with their hyperactive son.

In 1976, at the end of his tether, Victor picked up a copy of the bestseller; Why your child is Hyperactive, by Dr. Benjamin Feingold, an allergist and pediatrician. Feingold suggested that removing additives and artificial colors from a child's diet would eliminate hyperactivity. Many people think the controversial idea is a key to solving a growing trend of behavioral problems among U.S. children.

A family's salvation

"By three weeks on the diet, John was a normal person," said Victor. "The school principal called to congratulate us, telling us he was a different boy. The school also learned that John had a fantastic IQ and sent him on to a school for gifted children."

John, now 32 and a high-flying mutual fund wholesaler in San Francisco, recalls removing the additives from his diet.

"It felt suddenly that I was far more in control of what was going on. It seemed intuitive to remove all the additives and colorings from the cupboard. It just didn't seem like anything that nature would give you to eat."

The Freemans' story adds weight to nutritionists' arguments that food additives can trigger manic mood swings in certain sensitive children.

Ritalin as cure-all

Jane Hersey, National Director of the Feingold Association of the U.S., a non-profit group created by Dr. Benjamin Feingold, says that while most pediatricians prescribe hyperactive kids Ritalin, a sedating medication, the key to calming a hyperactive child's behavior is cleaning up his or her diet.

"We have seen that for a sensitive child, it only takes a tiny amount of a synthetic additive, like a color or artificial flavor to trigger a severe reaction from being upset, agitated, hyperactive or even violent," said Hersey.

But there is a dearth of medical research backing up nutritionist claims that junky diets are making some children wacko.

Marcel Kinsbourne, M.D., a pediatric neurologist and professor at the New School University in New York, said that after numerous double blind controlled studies he had to conclude that additives or food colorings have no effect on children, or that the effect is negligible.

"One thing you can be sure of is if you remove all food additives from a child's diet, it's not going to make them normal. Ritalin on the other hand, even the tiniest dose has a marked effect and within just hours," said Kinsbourne. Kinsbourne did note, however, that a huge amount of food additives created a considerable effect on children with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).

A rising tide

The controversy over a potential link between food additives and mood swings has escalated in the face of increasing behavioral problems in U.S. schools.

Problems such as ADHD, depression and learning disabilities more than doubled from 1979 to 1996, according to a study published in the June 2000 issue of the journal Pediatrics. The study author, Dr. Kelly Kelleher of the Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh, also found that such conditions were identified in 6.8 percent of all doctor visits in 1979 and in 18.7 percent of all visits in 1996.

While studies relating the two are scarce, food sensitivities and allergies are on the rise as well.

The Food Allergy Network, a nonprofit organization, confirmed that currently between 6 and 7 million Americans suffer from food sensitivities and allergies and that physicians across the country are reporting more cases.

Food sensitivities afflict more children than adults. According to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology (AAAAI), 8 percent of children younger than 6 years compared to 1 to 2 percent of adults are sensitive to food additives.

Additive addiction

Carol Simmontachi, a nutritionist in private practice in Vancouver, Washington who wrote a book on the subject called The Crazy Makers is horrified by the amount of monosodium glutamate (MSG), aspartame and sodium lactate being added to the foods marketed to American kids.

"There is a huge amount of MSG and aspartame in snack foods causing lesions in lab animals and neurological problems in humans. Sodium lactate, a common taste enhancer in hundreds of snack foods, can cause panic attacks in susceptible individuals and we know that panic attacks are rising dramatically," Simmontachi said.

Meanwhile, the cheese whiz and marshmallow in a jar remain on the supermarket shelves.

"No research has been done on the additives on the brain. So to say specifically that this additive does this and this additive does that is impossible. That is one of the huge problems with the food industry," explained Simmontachi.

Lacking proof, food industry churns on

What's more, while nutritionists are caustic about food additives and colorings in children's food, the snack food industry and scientists remain unconvinced of their threat.

For instance, the web site of Hershey, the chocolate manufacturer, runs a disclaimer saying that "while it is often thought that sugar and additives cause hyperactivity in children, recent studies have found no evidence that candy has a diverse effect on children's behavior."

Asked whether sodium lactate could cause behavioral changes in young children, a spokeswoman from Nabisco, America's snack food giant, said that "without studies to substantiate these claims, Nabisco has no comment." Mars M&M, the manufacturer of Skittles, M&Ms and Fruit Burst candies, did not return phone calls.

*John and Victor Freeman asked that their last names be changed to protect their privacy.

Deborah Gardiner is a freelance journalist from New Zealand based in San Francisco. If you have questions or comments, she can be reached at kiwichick@earthlink.net.

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