Thursday, October 10, 2013

Hot Topics-Additives, Preservatives and Colorings Oh My!

I’ve noticed something.  Parents of children with behavior problems (such as aggression, hyperactivity, and anxiety) who are now of school age often turn outward to find the cause.  They look to playmates (“he is aggressive”), at gender (“he’s just being a boy”), at classroom management (“but they have to sit still for so long”), to psychology (“she is an active child”) and even school food (“it’s the food coloring”) to explain the behavior.  Maybe the behavior problems manifest themselves more once a child is in the social environment of school.  Perhaps the parent’s attention was first called to the problem behavior by a teacher.

A recent study linked behavior problems to dietary quality during two key developmental time frames.  Unhealthy early dietary patterns, a mother's prenatal diet and a child's diet from birth to age 3, were independently related to the risk for behavioral and emotional problems in children.  These diets are both, of course, well before a child attends school.
I’ve had some parents over the years ask us to not serve food with additives, preservatives, and artificial coloring.  Frankly, I do not want to eat many center-of-plate, low cost foods (which is what public schools have to serve) that do not have preservatives.  Shelf life is important and food deliveries only come once a week.  Food borne illnesses are serious and we serve a susceptible population.  Additives are not inherently wrong.  They emulsify, leaven, enrich and improve our food.  Artificial coloring may be a little shadier, but know that many old school standbys have been improved - our strawberry milk is now colored with beet juice.
I know, it's complicated.  Child behavior is complicated.  Childhood obesity is complicated.  Just don't be too quick to blame school food.
Reference:  Maternal and Early Postnatal Nutrition and Mental Health of Offspring by Age 5 Years: A Prospective Cohort Study, Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, October 2013

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