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ADHD and Food Additives

Last week, we noted the BMJ published an editorial about a possible link between certain food colorings and a common preservative, and attention deficit disorder (ADHD). The author referred readers to a single study published late last year that showed — in children without ADHD — that there was a correlation between drinking certain experimental liquid concoctions and hyperactive behavior in some of the children studied.

I’m not sure why the BMJ published this editorial nearly 8 months after the study was published, an editorial that seemingly adds little new information or insight to the debate. Other than to note that most doctors don’t think about asking their young patients to limit intake of food or drink that have these specific food colorings or preservative (which would be challenging, given their widespread use).

But sadly, the editorial also takes an unnecessary swipe at psychotherapy interventions for ADHD, making the ludicrous claim that such interventions have “little or no scientifically based support.” I’m not sure what BMJ reviewer was sleeping when they let this statement stand, even in an editorial. The research literature is easily reviewed and shows that, in fact, there is a substantial body of evidence that shows the effectiveness of specific psychotherapeutic interventions for ADHD.

David Coghill submitted a rapid response to the editorial that nicely summarizes the evidence:

A recent meta-analysis conducted by the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) reported that across a broad range of clinically relevant outcomes the quality of the evidence was generally moderate to high and that compared with control conditions psychological interventions for children with ADHD have moderate beneficial effects on parent ratings of ADHD symptoms and conduct problems at the end of treatment. These beneficial effects appear to be sustained at follow-up 3 to 6 months after the end of treatment

In other words, the editorial writer ignored the evidence in order to make his point more strongly.

I thought peer-reviewed journals like the BMJ had higher quality standards, even for editorials. Apparently, I was wrong.

Parents should examine all treatment options for their child with ADHD, which includes medications, behavioral interventions, and a trial of reducing or cutting out foods with food colorings and preservatives. Not all treatments work for all treatments, so a trial-and-error approach is standard for ADHD treatments, like all mental disorder treatments.

Read the news story: Link Between ADHD and Food Additives Again Questioned
Read the first 150 words of the editorial: Food additives and hyperactivity

ADHD and Food Additives

John M. Grohol, Psy.D.

Dr. John Grohol is the founder of Psych Central. He is a psychologist, author, researcher, and expert in mental health online, and has been writing about online behavior, mental health and psychology issues since 1995. Dr. Grohol has a Master's degree and doctorate in clinical psychology from Nova Southeastern University. Dr. Grohol sits on the editorial board of the journal Computers in Human Behavior and is a founding board member of the Society for Participatory Medicine. You can learn more about Dr. John Grohol here.

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APA Reference
Grohol, J. (2018). ADHD and Food Additives. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 30, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 24 May 2008)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
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