We can’t get away from food chemicals. Whether naturally occurring or artificially created, health-promoting or unhelpful, we all ingest them. In large enough quantities, eating too much of certain food chemicals can affect how you feel and behave. Children are particularly susceptible because they have a much smaller body weight than adults. Adults can be less susceptible because most have learnt some control over their emotions, and because they have a larger body mass than children, so the effect isn’t so evident.
Artificial food chemicals like food dyes, preservatives and flavour enhancers appear regularly in processed foods. Most times they can be identified by the food label numbering system; when you examine the label of a packaged food like a sauce, often there will be a series of numbers within the contents list which are actually just shorthand for some very long chemical names. Well known – or infamous – artificial food chemicals with behavioural effects include MSG and red colouring, but there are lots of others too. Savvy parents have known for some time that feeding their child too much processed food can result in some very unpleasant behaviours. That’s what artificial food chemicals can do to a tiny brain.
Naturally occurring food chemicals exist too. They’re not necessarily harmful, and some are actually helpful, but children particularly can be susceptible to their psychological effects. One type which can cause problems is salicylates and amines. These give food a ‘sharp’ or ‘tangy’ taste; vintage cheese and tangy fruits like citrus are good examples. For most of us, the salicylates and amines in food have no effect at all, but for some children these natural chemicals can have really unpleasant behavioural effects; creating anger outbursts, uncontrollable tantrums and the like.
If you suspect that your child, or even yourself, is affected by natural or artificial food chemicals, you can easily review your diet to check. Scan the labels of processed foods in your kitchen, using a book like ‘The Additive Code Breaker’ as a guide. Next, if you want to investigate the possibility of salicylate or amine sensitivity, take a look at the food intolerance information produced by the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital allergy unit – you can find them online.
But before you head down the path of time consuming elimination diets to investigate food chemical intolerance, first consider one very important mood-affecting food chemical: sugar. Whether real or artificial, this food sweetener can have powerful negative effects on mood and behaviours in children and adults. Almost everyone believes they don’t eat too much sugar, but when you actually add up the total sugars from your processed foods and drinks, you may be surprised to find that you can easily exceed 25g per day, the recommended maximum.
Yes, food chemicals are everywhere. But since you can control what you put in your mouth, you can manage their effects.