Food for thought

Have you checked the preservatives in the bread you feed your child?
Have you checked the preservatives in the bread you feed your child? Photo: Getty Images

It was December 24, 2012. Suzanne was picking up her four-year-old son, Callum* from child care when a worker from the centre said something that threatened to ruin Suzanne’s Christmas. “She said Callum had been uncontrollable all day and that he was getting worse,” Suzanne says. Suzanne and her husband knew Callum had a low tolerance for frustration which often resulted in aggressive behaviour, but Suzanne put that down to his diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Callum has “ASD - Pervasive Developmental Disorder Not Otherwise Specified,” a diagnosis which in essence means that he is on the autism spectrum but not within any existing category of autism. Since the arrival of Callum’s younger sister, Suzanne and her husband had received daily bites and scratches from Callum, and outings were becoming increasingly difficult.

Suzanne didn’t know what to do next. “Unpredictable, challenging behaviour is part of ASD,” she says. “Thinking outside the square about Callum’s behaviour seemingly wasn’t needed. I had put it down to the arrival of his sister, bad luck, attention-seeking behaviour and having ASD.” An innocent query from the child care worker set Suzanne on a difference course. “She asked if we had heard of preservative 282, because a child she had worked with eliminated it from his diet and it helped a lot,” Suzanne says. After searching the internet Suzanne found a website that provided detailed explanations of how certain foods can impact a child’s behaviour and development.

Suzanne had discovered information from Sue Dengate, food intolerance expert, founder of the Food Intolerance Network and author of Fed Up: Understanding how food affects your child and what you can do about it. In 2002, Dengate authored an article in the Journal of Pediatrics and Child Health that found irritability, restlessness, inattention and sleep disturbance in some children may be caused by preservative 282.

While reading Dengate’s information, all the dots started to join up for Suzanne. She scanned the labels of the foods Callum regularly consumed. “Preservative 282 was in almost everything he ate,” Suzanne says. “I thought I was educated and across this, but I had so much to learn.”

Sue Dengate says it is common for parents to believe they are feeding their children healthy food but that some seemingly benign foods can affect children’s behaviour and development. “The bread preservative 282 can impact children so badly,” she says. “Especially if they are eating it all the time. Preservative 282 can be also be called cultured dextrose or cultured wheat.”

Dengate says that if parents are concerned enough to take their children to a doctor or psychologist for their behavioural issues, then it is worth considering their child’s diet. “Not everyone is prepared to take the dietary way of dealing with children’s behaviour problems, but if they do, then they can see an enormous difference,” she says.  

Food chemicals build up gradually, producing good days and bad days without an obvious cause. Dengate stresses that while most people are aware that artificial additives can impact children’s behaviour, many don’t know that natural food chemicals can also affect children. Looking closely at the amount of fruit children eat may offer some answers for parents. “There are things called salicylates which are a kind of natural pesticide in many plants, including fruit,” Dengate says. Depending on how much we eat and how sensitive we are, Dengate says salicylates can also have a big impact on children’s behaviour. She estimates up to 75% of children with behaviour problems may be sensitive to salicylates.

Nutritionists recommend children have five serves of vegetables and two pieces of fruit, but lots of children are doing it the other way around. “Kids these days seem to live on fruit,” Dengate says. “They’re having fruit juice, dried fruit and unlimited amounts of fresh fruit. That’s a diet very high in salicylates.” Dengate says families she has worked with have seen “a huge change” by limiting their children to two pieces of fruit a day (“preferably pears or apples because they have low salicylate content”).

Research supports Dengate’s claim. A clinical study conducted by Mickaela Schelleman as part of her doctoral studies in 2011 at RMIT University, found improved behaviour for 80% of the 516 Australian children who undertook a low salicylate, reduced amine (another food chemical) diet. Compared with a behavioural training problem, Schelleman found that the “Simplified Elimination Diet used was clearly superior in normalising clinically significant behaviour problems in children aged 4 to 12 referred for dietary and/or behavioural intervention.”

While dietary factors should be thought of as aggravating underlying tendencies in susceptible children, Suzanne is convinced of the benefits of looking closely at the food her son eats. She decided to limit Callum’s fruit intake and to permanently cut out preservative 282 from his diet. On Christmas Eve Callum ate bread without preservative 282 and butter. “He literally changed overnight,” Suzanne says. “Christmas day he was settled and agreeable. After a week we were in delightful shock.”

Suzanne says Callum is now polite and settled 95% of the time. Her arms still bear the scars of the daily bites and scratches she used to receive from him, but says she is grateful for them. “They just remind me how far we have come,” she says.

*Name has been changed