Angry Toxicologist

It’s nice to a see a good study every once in a while and after about 30 years of debating whether preservatives cause hyperactivity/attention deficit. I can’t go into all the studies that have been done because there are too many. Suffice it to say that the methodologies were always lacking, and the results uneven (whether positive or negative).

Now a randomised, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial has been conducted and published in The Lancet (you can get it here for free!). They took 153 3-year olds and 144 8-9 year olds and gave them a sweet drink with either sodium benzoate, a common preservative, and a artificial colors/flavors mix or a placebo. The amount of preservative/color/flavor is less than what many children get in a day. They were tested on a standard hyperactivity index, as well as a attention test. The children were given different drinks on different weeks and since it was double blind, neither the children or the scorers (parents/teachers) knew which drink they got. And since the same children were tested on both, you don’t have to worry about variation between children as much.

Chlidren (both the 3-yr olds and the 8–9 yr olds) given the artificial color/preservative mix had increased hyperactivity. The result was the same no matter how strict you were about inclusion criteria for analysis (e.g. we’ll only look at kids that finished more than 85% of their drink). As expected for any toxicant, some kids were strongly effected and some were not. It’s real, though.

This brings up a problem that public health workers don’t like to think of, much less do something about. The widespread nature of preservatives/artificial colors/flavors, makes this a problem that no one wants to admit to because there are no win-win answers or easy solutions.

The first solution is to make sure your kid doesn’t eat preservatives/artificial colors/flavors. One, that’s expensive for many people. Two, if you’re not cooking/baking a lot, your choices of food are limited because most processed foods have preservatives or artificial colors/flavors. Three, not eating pre-made food can be a difficult switch for many people (what are we going to eat tonight – Gee cooking takes time). So go buy a cookbook (How to Cook Everything by Mark Bittman if you’re only going to have one) and start cooking.

The second solution is for the FDA to get on the stick and re-evaluate these compounds. Why didn’t they fund a study like this decades ago? They should have and (again) really feel down on the job. Seriously, can’t they do anything right on food? Just goes to show why the Safe Food Act needs to be considered and passed. Learn more about it here.

Comments

  1. #1 Moopheus
    September 25, 2007

    Any thoughts on whether these chemicals have an effect on adults? I try to avoid processed foods and cook my own foods, but it’s hard to avoid these things absolutely completely.

  2. #2 Anna
    September 25, 2007

    I wish they could have done this study without using sweet drinks. I think the excessive amounts of sugar and other sweeteners that kids consume is just as harmful as the additives. Sugars are powerful stimuli for insulin production, which if chronically raised, can cause roller coaster blood sugar levels leading to behavior problems, mood swings, irritability, aggression, and strong hunger symptoms. I guess it’s hard to get kids to drink colored and preserved water, though.

    And the little bit of reading I have done on chemical food flavorings indicates there isn’t much difference between artificial and “natural” flavorings. The way I understand, those designations are legal and regulatory terms defined by the source of the chemical flavoring. For instance, the chemical vanillin provides the dominant vanilla flavor and aroma in vanilla bean, and as such, vanillin is used extensively as a cheaper alternative to the expensive vanilla bean. Vanillin is labeled “natural vanilla flavor” if it comes from a food source (perhaps corn?) and “artificial vanilla flavor” if it comes from a non-food source ( perhaps wood?). Both are different to vanilla extract, which has a host of flavorful and aromatic chemicals dissolved in alcohol, from the actual vanilla bean. I think in the book Fast Food Nation, the difference was described by a food chemist as “old technology” (natural flavoring) vs. “new technology” (artificial flavoring). If I am erroneous in my understanding of this, any food chemist should feel free to clarify.

    As you say, AT, this study demonstrates yetanothe reason to get into the kitchen and cook real, high quality food (real food should be a priority in our lives rather than as a “quick refueling stop” for most meals and snacks). I realize there are some strong barriers to cooking real, high quality food for some people, notably the poor, come seniors, or some disabled people. But not for everyone. I know lots of families doing all kinds of extraneous stuff with their time and money that could easily be trimmed back to provide time and budgets for real, healthful food. But it requires a change in mindset and priorities, and I don’t see that happening soon. People are hooked on convenience and and prefer rushing around feeding their other interests. Collectively we have lost valuable life skills when it comes to feeding ourselves.

    An easy positive change is drinking water instead of soda or juice, though. Cheaper, too (assuming tap or home-filtered water, in a resuable bottle for on-the-go). A no-brainer, in fact.

  3. #3 Anna
    September 26, 2007

    I have a love/hate relationship with another blog that I read regularly ( its skepticism appeals to me even when I hate the conclusions). It also has a post on this same study, yet with an entirely different conclusion about the quality of the study design and the interpretation of the results.

    http://junkfoodscience.blogspot.com/2007/09/purple-tongues-and-big-red-grins.html

    I wonder if anyone has comments after comparing the two reviews of this study.

  4. #4 Katherine Sharpe
    September 27, 2007

    “How to Cook Everything by Mark Bittman if you’re only going to have one”

    Great cookbook!! I got it in early college and taught myself to cook by it.

  5. #5 windy
    September 27, 2007

    They took 153 3-year olds and 144 8-9 year olds and gave them a sweet drink with either sodium benzoate, a common preservative, and a artificial colors/flavors mix or a placebo.

    What *was* the placebo, actually? Natural flavors and colours? :)

    Anna:

    And the little bit of reading I have done on chemical food flavorings indicates there isn’t much difference between artificial and “natural” flavorings.

    Right, and benzoic acid (sodium benzoate minus the sodium) occurs naturally in high concentrations in berries. Shouldn’t we expect cranberry juice to produce similar effects in young children (if SB is the culprit)? If not, why?

  6. #6 Adrienne
    September 27, 2007

    FYI: the person who writes the JunkFoodScience blog, Sandy Swarcz, is a shill for the fast/processed food industry. That’s why she will never post anything in support of a link between obesity and fast food or obesity and sugar, for instance.

  7. #7 Adrienne
    September 27, 2007

    Oh, and she will never write or post anything on JunkFoodScience in support of greater regulations on the food industry either. Quite the contrary.

  8. #8 mndean
    September 27, 2007

    Well, I went to her blog once or twice, and when Swarcz cited Steve Milloy approvingly, I immediately knew how credible she wasn’t.

  9. #9 Sandy
    September 27, 2007

    FYI, I am not a shill for anyone or any industry, nor have I ever taken any money or worked for the fast food/processed food industry. As a medical professional of nearly 30 years, I am about the soundness and integrity of the science.
    Ad hominem arguments are one of the most used fallacious arguments used by those unable to examine the science.
    http://www.don-lindsay-archive.org/skeptic/arguments.html

  10. #10 mndean
    September 28, 2007

    Sandy,
    I notice you address the intemperate comments, but do not address the question in why the different interpretation of the study, a much more interesting (and knottier) question. And I still say that anyone who has used Milloy as support for anything they argue is either extraordinarily naive about him (there’s plenty of info about him for anyone who pretends to objectivity to keep him at least at arm’s length to keep their own credibility) or is just not a straight shooter. I can’t say which you may be, but it hardly matters. I don’t have the time to make such delicate distinctions.

  11. #11 Adrienne
    September 28, 2007

    So, Sandy, are you compensated for all those articles you write for tcsdaily.com? You know that that site is funded heavily by the fast food industry, such as McDonald’s, right? Or do you provide your articles to them gratis out of the goodness of your heart?

    I see Ms. Szwarc is also on staff for the “Competitive Enterprise Institute”: http://www.cei.org/dyn/view_expert.cfm?expert=248

    The Competitive Enterprise Institute is a non-profit public policy organization dedicated to advancing the principles of free enterprise and limited government. We believe that individuals are best helped not by government intervention, but by making their own choices in a free marketplace.

    Small wonder Szwarc will never criticize “Big Food” or call for increased government regulation of anything. I’ll bet she’s a global warming denialist too.

  12. #12 Adrienne
    September 28, 2007

    Also, technically, pointing out Ms. Szwarc’s link to the fast food industry isn’t an “ad hominem” argument at all. The proper term would be “guilt by association”.

    And Szwarc herself uses “guilt by association” — such as pointing out the connections of obesity study authors to the pharmaceutical or diet industries — all the damn time. It’s one of her favorite tactics, actually.

  13. #13 Doug
    September 28, 2007

    There are a few things to consider:

    1) How does this study compare “to the literature”? What is the general trend? One study does not overturn everything.

    2) What is the plausible mechanism of action with preservatives?

    Can someone weigh in on these things?

  14. #14 AngryToxicologist
    September 28, 2007

    Doug,
    The literature is mixed. Most of the studies (positive and negative) were plagued by small size, bias potential, bad design, or some combination.

    As to Ms Szwarc’s arguement, most of it doesn’t make sense. I get the idea that she didn’t read it very carefully because the main objection she has to it is that the parents or kids might have known the difference between the two drinks and created bias. However, quite clearly on page 2, the authors state that

    A masked testing by two independent panels of
    20 young adults showed that the active and placebo juice
    drinks could not be diff erentiated. When asked if the mix
    contained additive, 16 (40%), 21 (52%), and 26 (65%)
    adults responded positively for mix A, mix B, and placebo,
    respectively. We recorded no signifi cant diff erences
    between these proportions (Friedman test, ??=4?412,
    df=2).

    Among the other little snipes that Ms Szwarc takes at the study is this:

    This study wasn?t using some new, more modern method of assessing hyperactivity that thirty years of studies didn?t have available.

    First, would it have been better if they invented some new method? No that would have put a big question mark over it. I’m sure she would have nailed the study if they had made up their own scoring system. Second, you can say that no good studies have been done and then say that.

    It’s a solid study (best on the topic yet). Of course that’s not the end of it. We’ll do more studies, studies on the individual components (maybe it’s the combination?), mechanistic studies,…etc.

    One more thing because it really gets my back up. Ms Szwarc says that

    Those trying to scare us about dangers in our food, bodies or world will repeat and try to prove the same disproven scare over and over again, rather than move on.

    When did doing science become an agenda to scare? This is total BS that you hear all the time from the it’s all safe crowd. The first part of the BS is that anyone is trying to scare anyone. The second part of the BS is that anyone is scared. I’ve got kids and this makes me concerned but not scared. If someone honestly believes that people will freak out about this, they need to leave their protective bubble, read the news a bit more, and get some perspective. There’s some scary stuff going on in the world and it has little to do with preservatives. If people can digest deaths in Iraq and violent crime in their county, I doubt some hyperactivity by sweet drink sippy cup is going to throw them over the edge. Give people some credit. In the mean time, trying to improve the public health seems pretty noble to me, but not that scary.

  15. #15 Hank Roberts
    September 28, 2007

    > This is total BS

    Yep. Thank you. Watch your back, you’ll make enemies, as any good scientist does eventually.

  16. #16 Jack
    September 30, 2007

    Man, AT, did you lose a lot of credibility with this thread.

  17. #17 idlemind
    October 7, 2007

    I dunno, Jack, did he? The study seems pretty sound to me.

  18. #18 sex shop
    December 22, 2007

    reat cookbook!! I got it in early college and taught myself to cook by it.

  19. #19 directory
    January 9, 2008

    Szwarc herself uses “guilt by association” — such as pointing out the connections of obesity study authors to the pharmaceutical or diet industries — all the damn time. It’s one of her favorite tactics, actually.

  20. #20 Rich
    January 31, 2008

    Here’s something that is so easy and makes so much sense. Everyone will pretty much need to purchase cartridges so…I came across information through a business customer and looked further into it. Here is what I found, ”
    Over 700 million cartridges were thrown away world-wide in 2003 – and since more and more people use inkjet cartridges this amount will continue to grow year after year.
    Empty cartridges contain residual toner powder, ink, a plastic casing, aluminum and other parts. These parts are all non-biodegradable and they will take more than 1000 years to decompose in landfill sites.
    The remanufacturing of cartridges as an alternative to producing new ones currently reduces world demand of oil by 300,000 barrels and saves 17,000 tons of aluminum as well as 10,000,000 tons of timber. Besides helping to reduce carbon emissions, a major cause of global warming, it conserves resources and reduces waste.
    1.5 pints of crude oil are needed to produce one cartridge. In the last 6 months alone inkjet cartridge recycling has saved more than 50 million liters of oil, more than the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska’s Prince William Sound in 1989.”
    Wow, so my whole point is this client twotonellc.com remanufacturers ink and toner cartridges and considering the above information it only makes common sense to buy remanufactured ink and toner cartridges. You save money, get a higher yield (more prints) and save the environment.

  21. #21 chat
    July 20, 2009

    Subject to very good, but thank you very much for help

  22. #22 sohbet
    July 22, 2009

    Good information and good way your blog post.Good luck blogger man.

  23. #23 Dental Implants
    September 30, 2009

    great post , really good perspective on the subject and very well written, this certainly has put a spin on my day, many thanks from the UK and keep up the good work

    http://www.brightonimplantclinic.com

  24. #24 banko kupon
    October 3, 2009

    thanks

  25. #25 abercrombie
    December 1, 2009

    Empty cartridges contain residual toner powder, ink, a plastic casing, aluminum and other parts. These parts are all non-biodegradable and they will take more than 1000 years to decompose in landfill sites.

  26. #26 dentists
    February 15, 2010

    great post , really good perspective on the subject and very well written, this certainly has put a spin on my day, many thanks from the UK and keep up the good work

  27. #27 Crude Futures
    May 21, 2010

    “Preservatives cause hyperactivity/attention deficit”. This is a great discovery and exploration about the definition of “preservatives”

  28. #28 Daniel
    June 21, 2010

    ”Empty cartridges contain residual toner powder, ink, a plastic casing, aluminum and other parts. These parts are all non-biodegradable and they will take more than 1000 years to decompose in landfill sites.”
    they are now recyclable and can also be refilled and used again which is good now. i found a guy on an auction site that collects them for that reason.

  29. #29 Socrates
    January 8, 2011

    After researching for many years, I have come to the conclusion that preservatives are very harmful to our bodies (for both children and adults). For further information, I suggest visiting the following website, http://www.preservativehealth.com, which highlights in detail the detriment preservatives have on our health!

  30. #30 Socrates
    January 8, 2011

    After researching for many years, I have come to the conclusion that preservatives are very harmful to our bodies (for both children and adults). For further information, I suggest visiting the following website, http://www.preservativehealth.com which highlights in detail the detriment preservatives have on our health!

  31. #31 mehmet
    March 21, 2012

    güzel şeyler yapmak lazım