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An Alternative History of Hyperactivity

Food Additives and the Feingold Diet

Matthew Smith

Publication Year: 2011

In 1973, San Francisco allergist Ben Feingold created an uproar by claiming that synthetic food additives triggered hyperactivity, then the most commonly diagnosed childhood disorder in the United States. He contended that the epidemic should not be treated with drugs such as Ritalin but, instead, with a food additive-free diet. Parents and the media considered his treatment, the Feingold diet, a compelling alternative. Physicians, however, were skeptical and designed dozens of trials to challenge the idea. The resulting medical opinion was that the diet did not work and it was rejected. Matthew Smith asserts that those scientific conclusions were, in fact, flawed. An Alternative History of Hyperactivity explores the origins of the Feingold diet, revealing why it became so popular, and the ways in which physicians, parents, and the public made decisions about whether it was a valid treatment for hyperactivity. Arguing that the fate of Feingold's therapy depended more on cultural, economic, and political factors than on the scientific protocols designed to test it, Smith suggests the lessons learned can help resolve medical controversies more effectively.

Published by: Rutgers University Press

Series: Critical Issues in Health and Medicine


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Title Page, Copyright

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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-x

As with new medical ideas, the success of a book is often directly proportional to the number of debts accrued during its development. This project would not have been possible without the financial support of the Wellcome Trust and the Social Sciences and Humanities Council of Canada. The Wellcome Trust has also provided me with indispensable training, especially its oral history course. I am ...

List of Abbreviations

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pp. xi-xiv

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Chapter 1

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pp. 1-14

In 1974, a self-help book written by Ben F. Feingold (1899–1982) entitled Why Your Child Is Hyperactive arrived on the shelves of bookstores across North America.1 On the surface, the Random House publication was not particularly exceptional. By the mid-1970s, hyperactivity, a disorder characterized by hyperactive, impulsive, inattentive, aggressive, and defiant behavior, was ...

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Chapter 2

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pp. 15-35

How have scientists depicted the origins of their discoveries? In order to understand how new medical hypotheses are perceived by physicians and the public, it is helpful to explore how their authors present such ideas. We often learn first about medical advancements such as vaccination, pasteurization, and penicillin by way of captivating tales, often featuring heroic physicians succeeding despite difficult circumstances. Such accounts can be entertaining...

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Chapter 3

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pp. 36-50

Given Feingold’s desire to make his theory respectable, it seems strange that he chose to publicize his idea not through articles in leading medical journals, such as JAMA or Pediatrics, but in a popular book aimed at parents. Prior to his work on hyperactivity, Feingold had published regularly in medical journals. Feingold’s flea bite allergy research in the 1960s, for example, was accompanied ...

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Chapter 4

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pp. 51-67

Without the support of the AMA, it was difficult for Feingold to gain the credibility he desired for his diet, and this problem was compounded by the difficulty of communicating his idea to parents via their physicians. Fortunately for Feingold, Random House’s offer to publish his book in 1974 provided him with an ideal opportunity to present his idea directly to parents and foment a debate about the etiology and treatment of hyperactivity. Random House’s interest...

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Chapter 5

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pp. 68-86

The role of chemicals in the food supply was an enormous debate during the postwar period, dividing opinion not only about food but technology, modern lifestyles, and the etiology of disease. While some, such as English psychiatrist Richard Mackarness, advocated a return not only to a chemical-free diet but to a “stone-age diet” based on protein rather than carbohydrates, others, such as nutritionist Frederick Stare and epidemiologist Elizabeth Whalen, believed...

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Chapter 6

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pp. 87-110

Anxiety about food additives persisted into the mid-1970s, in the face of a recession that threatened to undermine consumers’ willingness to pay for expensive organic foods. As journalist Anna Colamosca reported in 1974, “Despite soaring prices, the $600 million health food industry seems to be holding up well.” Although Colamosca stated that “hundreds of health food...

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Chapter 7

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pp. 111-130

During the period between the publication of Why Your Child Is Hyperactive in 1974 and Feingold’s death in 1982, researchers in the United States, Canada, and Australia designed dozens of trials that tested Feingold’s theory. The prevailing opinion that emerged from these trials, reflected in the medical literature, was that the Feingold diet did not stand up to scientific scrutiny and...

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Chapter 8

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pp. 131-152

Regardless of the conclusions reached by medical researchers about Feingold’s theory, the ultimate arbiters of whether the Feingold diet worked or not were hyperactive children and their parents. Parents had to decide to attempt the diet and adjust their shopping, meal planning, and cooking; monitor their children for compliance; and determine if the diet worked. Their children had to...

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Chapter 9 (Conclusion)

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pp. 153-168

From the manner in which Feingold depicted the origins of his theory to the reasons why it became a popular phenomenon and the way decisions were made about it, the history of the Feingold diet demonstrates how novel medical ideas have had to serve the interests of numerous parties. Physicians, politicians, industries, the media, and patients and their families came to understand the Feingold diet in disparate ways and for different reasons, and this complicated...


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pp. 169-194


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pp. 195-234


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pp. 235-245

E-ISBN-13: 9780813551029
Print-ISBN-13: 9780813550169

Page Count: 256
Publication Year: 2011

Series Title: Critical Issues in Health and Medicine
Series Editor Byline: Edited by Janet Golden and Rima D. Apple See more Books in this Series

OCLC Number: 775302263
MUSE Marc Record: Download for An Alternative History of Hyperactivity

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Subject Headings

  • Feingold, Ben F.
  • Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder -- Nutritional aspects.
  • Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder -- History.
  • Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder -- Diet therapy.
  • Food additives -- Toxicology.
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