Food Additives and Behaviour

food additives - tots to teens

It’s the silly season and with all the socialising, your kids are probably eating far more treat foods than normal. Dr Libby Weaver talks us through how certain foods and food chemicals can have a detrimental impact on our child’s health and behaviour.

It’s no secret that what we eat can impact our health, emotions and behaviour and this statement is of particular importance when it comes to growing brains and bodies. Processed and packaged foods are becoming increasingly popular, but what many people don’t consider is that they can be loaded with additives and preservatives to control colour, flavour, aroma, nutrition, texture, and shelf life. Many of these additives and preservatives are best avoided, especially since they can have a much greater health impact on children compared to adults, and have been linked to things like obesity, ADHD and disruptive behaviour. A growing body of research supports that even compounds naturally-occurring in our foods can have a detrimental effect in some children.

The prevalence of food intolerance is unknown, but it is estimated to occur in 10% of the population. A food intolerance is a reaction to a food, or a food chemical – whether naturally-occurring (e.g. salicylates, amines, glutamate, monosodium glutamate (MSG)) or artificially added (e.g. preservatives, colours, flavours). Food intolerances can cause feelings of tiredness and mood change. Children can become irritable, restless, inattentive, have sleep disturbances, and any existing behavioural problems can be aggravated.

Let’s explore how substances added to our food, and substances naturally-occurring in our food, could impact our children.

substances added to foods:

Science has now shown that food additives can influence children’s behaviour. The reactions they can experience tend to be related to dose, so the more additives children eat, the more likely they are to be affected. Additives are now used widely in foods such as bread, butter, crackers, yoghurt, juice and muesli bars, as well as in many take-away foods.

Some of the common food additives are explored in more detail below.


Studies published in the Australian Medical Journal found that propionate preservatives can cause irritability, restlessness, difficulty concentrating and sleep disturbance in some children. Calcium propionate (along with propionic acid and sodium propionate) is used as a preservative in bread and other baked goods. It also occurs naturally in some types of cheese. It keeps bread and baked goods from spoiling by preventing mould and bacterial growth. Propionates are easy to avoid. Simply read the food labels and buy one that doesn’t contain preservatives.


Sulphites are added to many foods, drinks, and some medicines. They are used in very small amounts so people cannot see or taste them. Many processed or cooked foods may contain added sulphites. If you look at ingredient listings of fast food companies, you will see that few of the ingredients have sulphites listed. This does not mean that the foods are sulphite-free. Small amounts of sulphites all add up, in processed food ingredients like corn syrup solids, cornstarch, maltodextrin, potato starch and flakes, beet sugar, bottled lemon juice, glucose syrup, the caramel colour used in cola drinks. Sulphites are also commonly found in take-away pizzas. Children can experience nausea, abdominal pain or diarrhoea from reactions to sulphites. The easiest way to avoid sulphites is to avoid processed foods as often as possible.


Nitrates and nitrites are chemical compounds that occur naturally in the environment and are important plant nutrients, but can also be added to some food products as a preservative and to give meat a more appealing colour. Processed meats such as ham, bacon and salami contain nitrate and nitrite additives. Despite their cancer-causing potential, nitrates and nitrites are still permitted for use by health authorities because preservatives inhibit the growth of microorganisms. If processed meats are something you wish to include in your child’s diet, there are a number of companies now that produce nitrate-free bacon, ham and salami. Seek them out.

substances that naturally occur in foods:

Phenolic compounds & salicylates

Phenolic compounds are naturally occurring chemicals found in many of the foods we eat like some fruits, vegies, and nuts, and they can also be added to common non-food products such as toothpaste, hair dyes, medicine, and disinfectants. It is important to remember that most foods have some level of phenols in them and that they are natural and can even be beneficial to the body, as is the case with antioxidants in fruit. Salicylates are one type of phenol in the phenol family and scientists believe they are produced by plants for use as their own natural protection from diseases, insects, fungi, and harmful bacteria.

So why are salicylates a problem?

Salicylates stimulate the central nervous system in people that react to them. This can often bring with it an emotionally extreme high followed by an extreme low. Other physical reactions can include: dark circles under eyes, red face/ears, diarrhoea, headaches, difficulty falling asleep at night, night waking, excessive tiredness and lethargy. Behavioural symptoms of a reaction can be: hyperactivity, aggression, head banging or other self-injury, and even inappropriate laughter. Research suggests that about 70% of children with behavioural problems are in fact affected by salicylates, artificial colours and preservatives.

Foods with high salicylates are:

1   Vegetables – tomato and tomato products, gherkin, button mushrooms, radish, olives, capsicum and cucumber.

2   Fruit – dried fruits, most berries, oranges, apricot, rockmelon and plums.

3   Sweet foods – honey, licorice, peppermints, chewing gum

Natural food chemicals and where to find them:

1   Salicylates are found in most fruit, some vegetables, herbs, spices, tea, and flavour additives such as mint flavouring.

2   Amines are found in cheese, chocolate, yeast extracts and fish products.

3   Glutamate is found in most foods, as it acts as a natural flavour enhancer, and added monosodium glutamate (MSG) is often used in soups, sauces, snack foods and Asian cooking.

So where to from here? One of the most commonly used ways to explore food intolerances is through an elimination diet under the direction of a health professional with experience in the area. This involves removing the suspected offending compound/substance from the diet for a number of weeks and then reintroducing it, often in even larger amounts to measure its effect. Some parents see such an improvement that they choose not to reintroduce.

I simply want to encourage you to eat more real food. That way you naturally avoid added preservatives, additives, colourings, flavours and a host of artificial ingredients. Real or whole foods are edible substances, which are as close to their “whole” or natural state as possible. Real food offers real nutritional value. Our bodies know what to do with real food, so when in doubt look for home-made alternatives. If you want to have pizza, make your own base and sauces. If you like to have sauces or condiments, make your own. That way you control what goes into them. Not only will you save money, but your health and that of your children’s will likely improve.

Research suggests that about 70% of children with behavioural problems are in fact affected by salicylates, artificial colours and preservatives.

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