Artificial Food Dyes & Behavior

By Eve Kessler, Esq.


The link between artificial food dyes and hyperactivity in kids is a hot topic for researchers, regulators, policymakers, and consumer advocates • Anecdotally, parents, too, attest to the harmful effect food dyes have on their child’s behavior as well as on school performance

Although the evidence is still considered inconclusive, numerous studies have shown that food dyes can worsen behavior in some children. Three British studies in the 2000s found that certain artificial food dyes and preservatives may have negative impacts on behavior in susceptible children with and without ADHD. Those conclusions prompted the European Union to make significant public health changes: Food and beverage manufacturers were urged to avoid artificial food colors (AFCs) or to add labels warning that specific AFCs “may have an adverse effect on activity and attention in children.” Consumers were also encouraged to eliminate AFCs and were educated about finding dye-free products. As a result, food and beverage companies and supermarket chains replaced most AFCs with natural dyes for the European market.

The U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) has taken a different approach. While the FDA has banned many dyes found to cause serious health problems, such as cancer, the agency has declined to ban approved dyes or add information to food labels regarding potential harms. Consequently, in the U.S. AFCs are listed on food labels with no warnings, and popular kid’s foods that are sold dye-free in Europe (Fruit Loops, Starburst Fruit Chews, etc.) continue to be sold in the U.S. with artificial dyes.

In 2012, Dr. Joel Nigg, a leading ADHD researcher, and his team analyzed the strength of all existing studies involving the effect of artificial food dyes on behavior. As often happens in an analysis of this scale, flaws in the original studies came to light, which is what Nigg’s team found, forcing the researchers to conclude the state of evidence was “inconclusive.” Nevertheless, their examination found enough to describe the link between synthetic dyes and hyperactivity as “too substantial to dismiss.”

Dr. Nigg suggests minimizing children’s exposure to AFCs until their safety can be better determined.

Food for Thought

If you have concerns about AFCs in your family’s diet, use the following information to help guide your buying decisions.

  1. Artificial dyes have no health benefits. AFCs contain no nutrients, have no taste, and serve no dietary purpose beyond appearance. They are often used as cheap replacements for healthful ingredients (such as berries in snacks or fruit drinks).
  2. Artificial dyes appeal to kids. The food and beverage industry knows its market and capitalizes on the allure of bright colors: Why eat something beige and boring when you can enjoy the rainbow of colors in Fruit Loops?
  3. Artificial dyes are ubiquitous. AFCs are used in thousands of common foods, personal care products, and over-the-counter and prescription medications. Over 90% of kid-oriented candies, fruit-flavored snacks, and drink mixes and powders are artificially colored. Synthetic dyes are inescapable in packaged foods, restaurant foods, bakery products, and school lunches: they make red redder (cherry pie filling), green greener (pickles; canned peas), and white whiter (marshmallows; vanilla frosting). As a category, only fresh produce is relatively dye-free.
  4. Children consume large amounts of synthetic dyes daily. Kids consume AFCs three times more frequently than adults, with daily use increasing fivefold in the last 50 years. Every day, 74 million kids in the U.S. consume the equivalent of at least 2,000 gallons of synthetic dyes. Beverages are the single largest source, because of the large volumes consumed in each serving. Researchers now believe that, although earlier trials used a load of 30 milligrams/day of dye as a baseline to study behavior, kids realistically consume 100-200 milligrams daily—and sometimes as much as 100 milligrams in a single meal. For example, eight Keebler cheese and peanut butter crackers, three Target mini green cupcakes, and eight ounces of Crush Orange contain over 111 milligrams of AFCs. The growing amount of dyes kids ingest today has never been tested for safety.
  5. Many children are sensitive to synthetic dyes. According to Dr. Nigg, food dyes cause symptoms in up to eight percent of children with ADHD nationwide—or over 500,000 kids. Because AFCs also impact an unknown number of children without ADHD, if just one-half of one percent of all children are sensitive to AFCs, dyes could trigger behavioral problems in an additional 250,000 kids.
  6. Artificial dyes are more of a public health problem than an ADHD problem. While AFCs are not a main cause of ADHD or hyperactivity, they may contribute significantly to some cases, and may additionally push a youngster over the diagnostic threshold. Because AFCs also have a harmful effect on kids without ADHD, if the behavior of many children in a class deteriorates even slightly each day, the classroom’s learning atmosphere may be seriously impaired.
Common Foods with AFCs

AFCs are found in foods and products you might not expect:

High-sugar breakfast cereals
Gelatin desserts
Ice pops
Ice cream
Bubble gum
Hot dogs
Salad dressings
Hot chocolate mix
Chocolate milkshakes
Cracker and cheese snacks
Chicken coating mixes
BBQ sauce
Peanut butter
Microwave popcorn
Face cream

This article is based on the ADDitude expert webinar, ADHD and Food Dyes, Nutrition, and Supplements, by Joel Nigg, Ph.D. Dr. Nigg is a professor of psychiatry and behavioral neuroscience and director of the Center for ADHD Research at Oregon Health & Science University and author of the recent book Getting Ahead of ADHD: What the Next Generation Science Says about Treatments that Work—And How You Can Make Them Work for Your Child. Eve Kessler, Esq., a retired criminal appellate attorney, is Executive Director of SPED*NET, Special Education Network of Wilton (CT), and a Contributing Editor of Smart Kids.