Eat, Forget, Underachieve - maths and diet

VNanaGlen Nana Glen additive-free school trial video (3 mins)

Asian countries top world achievement tables for education. According to the most recent OECD rankings for 15 year olds, Singapore comes first, followed by Hong Kong, South Korea, Japan and Taiwan (1).

When the first tests were held in 2000, Australia ranked 6th for maths, 8th for science and 4th for reading (out of 41 countries). In the most recent tests, Australia had dropped to 19th for maths, 16th for science and 13th for reading (out of 65 countries).

Could school underachievement be related to the Western diet? I think so.

Experts worry not only about low achievers but the number of high achievers. For grade 4 students in maths, the five East Asian countries had the largest percentages of high achievers. Singapore had 43% of students reach the Advanced level, compared to Korea (39%), Hong Kong (37%), Taiwan (34%) and Japan (30%), followed by Northern Ireland (24%) and England (18%), followed by "a group of eight countries with 10 to 13 percent" including Australia at 10% (2).

“Could do better if they tried” - or is it short attention span?

Blame is generally assigned to teachers, parents, lack of funding, national attitudes, anything but food. Yet inattention - short attention span, or loss of concentration - is one of the main effects of food additives such as artificial colours (3,4). Children can become vague, disorganised and forgetful but parents are unlikely to notice because inattention is hard to recognise compared to bad behaviour.  They are often unaware of the problem until tests results show their child’s poor school marks are unexpected, or teachers complain “could do better if they tried”.

Effects of additives

In Europe, since 2010, foods that contain certain artificial colours must display the warning:


"may have an adverse effect on activity and attention
in children"

In the UK, the result has been a massive decrease in the number of artificially coloured products available for sale but not so in Australia, where it is still up to parents to protect their children. Although some artificial colours have been removed from some products, they can still be found in commonly eaten foods from healthy looking green wraps to slushies and ice tubes. Could this have anything to do with Australia trailing behind the UK in global achievement tests? Seems likely.


Altogether there are 50 additives that have been found to cause problems with attention.  The bread preservative is commonly mentioned by our readers, as in this story:

“The introduction of preservative 282 in purchased bread coincided with a decline in our daughter’s abilities. Her performance decreased until we were able to get very little work out of her as she was unable to concentrate for more than about one minute at a time … we returned to using our bread maker after not having used it for nearly two years. After about ten days, we had a different child. She started concentrating!” - from story 329

It’s not only younger children who have problems with additives.

"Sulphite preservatives (220-228) send my 17 yo son loopy. We only cottoned onto food intolerances when he was 15.  Since cutting out the junk, he has gone from a failing student all his life to getting A's and B's in most subjects and doing uni pathway for year 12 next year ...." from story 1288

The science

In the 1980s, a New York school district carried out an unusual experiment involving 803 schools and more than a million students. They removed additives from the free school breakfasts and lunches over 4 years. Achievement on national standardised tests jumped from 5% below average to 11% above, and 75,000 children were no longer classified as learning disabled (5). Researchers reported:

“No other school district reported such a large gain above the rest of the nation so quickly …” Dr S. Schoenthaler

Similarly, in 1996 Wolney Junior school in South London, UK conducted a year-long additive-free trial in the tuckshop. The next year, unhealthy snacks were replaced by fruit. Head teacher Paul Winder reported that two years on, concentration levels and behaviour had improved, the success rate in external exams for 11 year olds almost tripled and the school won praise as one of the most improved in Greater London. Its Key Stage Two test results in English, which were less than half the national average in 1996 with 23% of pupils achieving expected levels, leapt to a 64% rate in 1998 (6).

Is your child underachieving in maths?

Most parents know if their child can’t read, but maths is a little harder. According to specialist maths tutor Kim Morley, Years 1 and 2 are the crucial years that require top quality, “hard-hitting” teaching, not just hands-on maths:  “Your child is supposed to have control of all manner of number concepts dealing with numbers up to 1000 by the end of Year 2. Few do! Try the simple test below. In my experience, most kids won't answer this correctly. “

Try this simple test:


“If your child by end of Year 2 can't answer 100 - 37 correctly, mentally, in about 2 seconds, they have a problem.”-  Specialist Maths Tutor Kim Morley 


Window of opportunity

Mr Morley says there is a crucial window of opportunity in mathematics development that most schools and parents miss. If your child has a problem, Mr Morley recommends to look at diet – and any other issues - to make sure that your child is physically and mentally in good shape to engage in learning.  Then seek help, earlier rather than later:

“Seek professional help early in Year 3 if possible, as they will be unlikely to ‘catch up’ without serious intervention and will probably never enjoy maths.”

While admitting that much of this is our school system's fault, and some children are affected by behavioural and other learning disabilities which compound the problem: “Cover all bases and seek help before Year 6 or 7 if possible. Don't be "fobbed off" with platitudes, Aussie kids (overall) are a long way behind the top five countries in mathematics achievement at Year 4 level." (7)

What parents can do


A two week additive free trial
can show you whether certain additives are causing a problem. See how to do it in our factsheet “Eating for Success” and more below (8)


Elimination diet.
For some children, avoiding additives is not enough. Natural food chemicals called salicylates, amines and glutamates could be causing problems and a full elimination diet could be more effective (9), as in this story:

"Last year I put my 8 yo son on the elimination diet.  Before the diet, he was in trouble at school every day, he was argumentative, angry, hyperactive , his behaviour was negative and every day was a huge struggle. After discovering that he reacts severely to preservatives, colours, salicylates and amines, his overall wellbeing has completely changed.

"Not only is the household a much calmer place now, also so is his class room. He would have been considered one of the naughtiest children in the class but now he is achieving amazing results at school. He competed in the National Maths Competition and got a distinction (finished in the top 11 % in all of Australia), he also achieved very highly in the Naplan.

"Not only is he a much happier boy, so are his siblings and both my husband and I. Not only has this diet given him a much better chance for a successful future, he is living testimony that this diet is truly life changing".  -  from story 1201 

See Introduction to food intolerance 

STEP 3: Seek help

If your child has suffered from significant learning delays in maths due to years of inattention, consider private tutoring to help them catch up as recommended by Mr Morley,


References and further reading

Asian countries top achievement tables

1. OECD report

2. Grade 4 maths
from TIMSS and PIRLS reports

Inattention or loss of concentration is a main effect of food additives

3. Rowe KS, Rowe KJ.  Synthetic food coloring and behavior: a dose response effect in a double-blind, placebo-controlled, repeated-measures study.  J Pediatr. 1994 Nov;125(5 Pt 1):691-8.

4. McCann D et al Food additives and hyperactive behaviour in  3-year-old and 8/9-year-old children in the community: a randomised, double-blinded, placebo controlled trial. Lancet, 2007;370, 1560-1567.

Schools remove additives & test results improve

5. A 1986 study in 803 NY schools: Schoenthaler SJ and others. The impact of a low food additive and sucrose diet on academic performance in 803 New York City public schools. International Journal of Biosocial Research, 1986 (8)2:185-195.

6. School leaps up the leagues table by Susie Steiner, The London Times, Thursday 20th May 99, News page 7. See our factsheet Schools go low additive

7. Kim Morley, Specialist Math Tutors 
0498 183 264   This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

8. Eating for Success factsheet

How to start failsafe eating  

Free Failsafe Booklets  

For more information about avoiding additives:

The bread preservative 282 can now be called cultured dextrose or Cultured ANYTHING

 All natural annatto (160b) is worse than artificial colours for some people

 129 ways to add MSG and fool consumers

9. Elimination diet

Introduction to food intolerance

How to start failsafe eating

Free Failsafe Booklets