Your Life As I Knew It

By Anna Cosslett

The highs and lows of family life, as a mother pieces together the effects and possible causes of her son's fairly severe autism.

Tuesday, 26 May 2020


Huw looking happy and healthy after some changes to his diet

Most parents of autistic children are concerned about the food they will or won’t eat.  Huw was never a picky eater, but he was manic for most of the day and woke at least three times every night.  In my recent article for the National Autistic Society magazine, I suggested removing most additives from your child’s diet to reduce reactions such as these. Some additives are necessary, though, so here are the first few steps in what to eliminate:

Anything ending or beginning with the word ‘extract’ or ‘concentrated

Most processed foods that are red, orange or even slightly yellow will probably contain ‘paprika extract’.  Most soups, sausages, pizzas and oven chips contain either ‘spice extracts’ or ‘yeast extract’ (or these substances disguised as flavouring, even ‘natural flavouring’).

Most fruit juices are ‘from concentrate’ and most deli dips and a lot of microwaveable foods contain ‘concentrated lemon juice’.  Anything powdered has been through a similar process.

In children and, indeed adults, who are sensitive to these substances, they can cause a rush of adrenaline - leading to hyperactivity – then, sometime later, a drop in blood sugar levels, and depression or tantrums linked with cravings for more of the same mood-boosting, energy-boosting foods (i.e. it can lead to addictions).  This is probably due to a by-product of these processes called 'freed glutamic acid' which doesn't have to be listed as an ingredient because it isn't actually added. If you haven’t had a full night’s sleep for several years and/or spend your days on the equivalent of a greyhound track trying to preserve the safety of your child, simply eliminating these additives from their diet could make everyone’s lives, including theirs, a lot easier.  But….


The following replacements shouldn’t be too hard to find:

Oven chips with just salt and sunflower oil added  (e.g. McCain’s original) 

Thin crust, fresh, own-brand pizzas with goats cheese (avoid strong or cheap cheeses) and anything with American cities or Southern in the title.

Dolmio original Bolognese sauce is the only widely available tomato pasta sauce I can find without ‘extracts’. Italian delis may have good alternatives.

Heinz ‘{Seriously} Good’ mayonnaise is a wonderful new item, free from the offending additives, now on the market for those who love mayonnaise on everything.

Classic Vinaigrette: 3 parts olive oil to one part cider vinegar plus salt & pepper can be used instead of mayonnaise. 

Dijon mustard as long as it is made with ground mustard seeds not some cheap alternative.

Ground Spices or whole mustard/coriander/cumin seeds usually available from Indian or Asian supermarkets in large packets. Use ground cumin in soups instead of stock cubes and look up the recipes of Madhur Jaffrey for easy curries to make. If you must have a take-away, avoid Chinese curries as these almost invariably contain freed glutamic acid (as a by-product or actually added in the form of flavour enhancer E620/621) – oh, and it's best to avoid most supermarket curries in microwaveable form and virtually all Chinese ready meals or sauces.

Plain salted crisps  Flavoured crisps usually contain flavour enhancer and very popular brands, such as hula hoops and Pringles, are made from reconstituted potato, which can have similar effects (anything that has been or has to be 'hydrolysed' has freed glutamic acid as a by-product, too - why you need to avoid stock cubes etc.)

Fresh garlic, ginger or chillies  Treat any other forms, including chilli ‘flakes’, with deep suspicion.

Meat juices mixed with a little plain flour and gradually thinned with boiling water or vegetable stock from actual vegetables instead of gravy mix, stock cubes or dried bouillon, all of which can have electrifying effects followed by dark moods up to two days later.  Season with salt and pepper and if you want a more gravy-like appearance, you can fry chopped onion in the juices until black at the edges before adding the flour. If you are vegetarian, as we were until Huw was six years old, vegetable oils are just as a good for this and as a base for other sauces.  See an earlier update  on Sleeplessness for why introducing meat may have helped Huw a great deal.

Goats milk and goats cheese instead of cows' milk products, worth trying instead of going for the completely casein-free diet*

Fruit juices from stewing fruit are really easy to make – just add more water than usual when stewing any fruits of your choice, and drain it off into a jug, before serving the fruit. Delicious chilled and with still or fizzy water added.

Tomato ketchup made from a tbsp. of Dolmio Bolognese sauce and half as much cider vinegar with added salt, black pepper and a bit of olive oil.  Most ketchup contains a huge number of additives (five likely to cause hyperactivity when I last checked the most popular brand.)

Fish fingers coloured with Turmeric or Curcumin NOT Paprika extract.  Youngs were the only ones I could find that passed muster on this, although I think Heinz are catching up.

* Many of you will be familiar with the Casein/Gluten free diet which I didn't follow to the letter because I felt Huw needed some milk products in our vegetarian diet, for calcium and protein.  When he had the urine test offered by the Autism Research Unit at Sunderland University, there were no opioids from the goats products I had substituted for cows' milk products, indicating that he tolerated these well.  He also needed them to boost his B12 levels, although I didn’t know it at the time. When he went gluten-free at six-and-a-half, he finally learnt to use the loo, but other factors may have contributed to this, as described in the book.

PLEASE always consult a doctor or dietician if you are removing whole food groups from your child's diet.  For instance, if you are vegan, B12 supplements are vital – yeast extract doesn’t contain enough of this vital vitamin and is best avoided for the reasons given here.


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