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Food for thought

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By Carol Lloyd

In 2004 a U.K. study found that additives may increase hyperactivity. After putting a group of 3-year-olds on an additive-free diet for a week, researchers gave some of the children an additive-laced drink and others an additive-free but otherwise identical beverage. Parents of the children drinking the additives reported an increase in disruptive behavior (they didn’t know which drink their children had been given). Another report published in 2007 in the British medical journal The Lancet found significant adverse behavioral responses in both 3-year-olds and 8- and 9-year-olds when they consumed drinks with a mixture of sodium benzoate and artificial coloring. Yet another study published in 2007 in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that a junk food diet at age 4 ½ was associated with a higher incidence of behavioral problems at age 7 — but the researchers noted that it was unclear whether this reflected a nutritional issue or a difference in parenting styles.

Burgers with a side of bad test scores?

Tobin’s own research — unpublished but presented at the 2009 conference of the American Educational Research Association — looked at the food consumption surveys of 5,500 fifth-graders from a national longitudinal survey by the Department of Education. Tobin found that children who ate fast food three or more times per week performed lower on standardized tests in reading and math.

How much lower? “On a 1-to-100 scale, it would mean about 17 points,” says Tobin. In other words, the difference between a 90 and a 73.

Think such findings say more about kids’ socioeconomic background than the actual affects of fast food? Not necessarily. Tobin says she controlled for the following variables: the parents’ income, age, education, occupational status, and number of hours employed; whether or not they attend parent-teacher conferences; whether the family has food security issues; and how many hours the child spends in before- or aftercare. She also controlled for the children’s race, gender, and age; the number of books they own; their interest in the subject matter tested; other food behaviors; obesity; school attendance; and their geographical region and urbanicity.

According to Tobin, none of these factors changed the link between a fast-food diet and low academic performance.

So does this mean fast food makes you stupid?

The devil's in the details

Tobin is cautious about jumping to any conclusions: “Having controlled for so many things, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to imagine that there could potentially be a biological effect.” But, she adds, there could be other explanations. “Maybe kids who don’t perform well academically are the type of kids who like to pretend they get to go to fast-food restaurants all the time. Or maybe the kind of parent that goes to fast-food restaurants is the same kind of parent who doesn’t have time to help with homework.”

In any case, Tobin’s research underscores some of the difficulties in researching the relationship between food and academic performance. Self-reported food-consumption surveys (from both children and adults) are notoriously inaccurate. Moreover, most food isn’t a single ingredient you can test in isolation.

To make matters worse, testing the effects of certain ingredients requires that families adhere to special diets, which typically limits the duration of the tests and therefore their scope. Finally, because we don’t eat ingredients in isolation, understanding the complexity of how chemical compounds interact in our bodies is usually beyond the scope of nutritional research. As Tobin noted, if there is something about fast food that has a deleterious effect on kids’ thinking, it won’t be easy to isolate: “Is it saturated fat? Is it a certain preservative? Is it the ammonia they use to clean hamburger meat? We don’t know.”

is the executive editor of GreatSchools and mother to two raucous daughters, ages 9 and 13.

Comments from readers

"Try looking for a link between MSG (which is found in many fast foods - sometimes hidden as ingredient) There are studies that suggest that it can cause brain damage in young people - kind of like the way coke drug habit effects the brain. "
"Ammonia to clean hamburger meat? Is this for real? Had no idea. "
"Yes the devil is in the details. The latest study says eat or drink sugar to boost your abilities right before a test. I think more important is the assistance they get in becoming educated. Schools want all students to act like adults, think like adults and be a walking library of etiquette and law. That just isn't going to ever happen as they are children. You can go right back to breast milk versus formula. They claim that feeding formula reduces the childs mental abilities by 30%! So why don't we just make a law that all babies are fed by the natural way. Oh....that might be interfering you your rights. But who knows one day they might be able to legislate even that. I am becoming a very cynical person when it comes to schools. This is a business. We are emotionally invested because it is our children. We as parents are letting the educators walk all over us. They don't know any secrets that they could share with us. Their children make the same mistakes ours do. They f! ail to get 30% of the kids to graduation. Yet no one wants to take them on and require changes that might benefit the kids. The same old record is scratching in the groove. Educators rally around themselves, not our kids. How is more money going to create something new out of the old? It won't they will just get paid more for less."
"Great article. With kids in college and elementary school, I've always been pretty laid back in my parenting. Coffee doesn't bother them (and no they don't have to drink decaf) and sugar never made them hyper. Of course, it will take generations of research to banish these myths to old wives' tale status."