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Food Dye and Behavior: A Connection in Children?

As you take in all that the food world offers your child, you may notice the “rainbow” of colors in your child’s diet. Maybe you’ve noticed “the rainbow” does NOT come from fruit and vegetables. Rather, from food full of artificial food dyes.

Are you wondering whether your child gets too much?

Do these artificial additives affect your child’s behavior?

And how much is too much?

In this article, I’ll look at food dye and behavior in children. Specifically, those kids with or without ADHD, which foods to look out for, and what you can do to limit synthetic dyes in your child’s diet.

Popsicles often have artificial food colors and may affect some children's behavior.

Is There a Connection Between Food Dyes and Children’s Behavior?

Food colors, preservatives, and other food components are a hot issue, especially if you have a child who shows a change in behavior when he or she eats food containing additives.

What I know as a childhood nutritionist is this: Artificial food dye may have an effect on kids. The Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA) of the California Environmental Protection Agency reviewed the results of studies on synthetic food dye and behavior.

 In the April 2021 assessment, OEHHA states that-

“The body of evidence from human studies indicates that synthetic food dyes are associated with adverse neurobehavioral outcomes in children, and that children vary in their sensitivity to synthetic food dyes.”

The studies “suggest that synthetic food dyes are associated with adverse neurobehavioral effects, such as inattentiveness, hyperactivity and restlessness in sensitive children.”

What About ADHD?

Although not all children sensitive to food dyes have ADHD and not all children with ADHD are sensitive to food dyes, we have some information about them and behavior in children with ADHD.

One study showed that up to 8% of children with ADHD were sensitive to additives such as artificial food colors. Hyperactivity is the symptom that sensitive kids tend to exhibit.

Learn more about what a healthy ADHD diet includes here:

In my class for parents about nutrition for ADHD, we go into the artificial food color conversation and how to temper them in a sensitive child’s diet.

Why is Artificial Food Dye Added?

Food dyes, also known as color additives, are added to food to enhance or maintain their appearance—taking them from drab to dramatic. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) allows 9 different artificial food colors in our food supply.

Four Color Additives are Widely Used:

  • FD&C Red #40 (also called Allura Red)
  • Yellow #5 (also known as Tartrazine)
  • Yellow #6 (Sunset Yellow)
  • Blue #1 (Brilliant Blue)

Here are some reasons manufacturers add dyes and colors to food:

  • So they can bring color to food that would be essentially colorless without it (ie, candy)
  • To enhance or brighten colors already in food
  • So they can prevent the loss of color due to environmental elements such as heat
  • To keep the product appearance consistent over time

Natural and Artificial Food Colors: What’s the Difference?

Natural food colors come from the pigment of foods like beta-carotene (carrots), grape skin extract (grapes) and saffron (a spice). These natural sources may add additional health qualities to the food itself.

Synthetic food dyes are produced from chemicals.

There are two types of artificial food colorings: Dyes and lakes.

Dyes are water soluble (they dissolve in water). They typically come in powder, granule, or liquid form.

Lakes are not water-soluble and are found in products containing fats and oils.

Are Artificial Food Colors Regulated?

The FDA regulates and guarantees the purity and safety of artificial food colorings. The acceptable daily intake (ADI) of synthetic food dyes was established between 1960-1980.

As it stands in the United States today, the FDA considers food dyes to be safe for human consumption. However, the FDA limits are decades old. When the ADI levels were determined, the studies weren’t looking at the neurobehavioral effects of artificial food dyes.

OEHHA suggests that current levels of food dye would exceed the current ADI levels if they were based on new studies that focused on neurobehavioral effects.

In the European Union, Red #40 and Yellow #5 and #6 was taken off the market. Europe placed warning labels on foods with other artificial food colors. This action by the European Union has deterred some manufacturers and prompted many (even in the US) to create products with natural food colors.

How Much Food Dye Is Safe?

The following is a table of artificial dyes in food, the FDA’s ADIs, and some common foods that contain these dyes.

table of synthetic food dyes in food

Where is Food Dye Found?

Artificial food colorings have no nutritional value—they do not add nutrients or calories to food. Beverages are one of the biggest sources of artificial food colors in the diet. Often, large volumes are consumed in a serving.

Many foods contain artificial food colors, especially sweets and treats. The most common food associated with food dye exposure are juice drinks, fruit-flavored drinks (powders which get reconstituted), soft drinks, ice cream cones, breakfast cereals, and icings.

Be on the lookout for other common sources of food dye in your child’s diet: candy, popsicles, jello, cakes, boxed dinners, and snacks.

Even foods without color, like white icing and marshmallows, may contain artificial food colors to make them look whiter. And other products like pickles contain yellow and blue dye to make the product look greener.

Artificial Color Load of Selected Foods

I interviewed Laura Stevens on The Nourished Child podcast and she gave even more insight about artificial food dyes, especially in children with ADHD.

The following table is adapted from research appearing in Clinical Pediatrics where Laura and colleagues measured the artificial color load in a variety of foods.

Although this is not a comprehensive list from the article, it provides a window to the world of foods with artificial food dyes.

TABLE 2: Common foods with artificial food dyes from original article

Table of artificial food dyes in commonly eaten foods

Should You Limit Artificial Food Coloring?

I’ve always felt that it’s a good idea to limit artificial flavors and colors in your child’s diet. Since some of the US studies don’t test realistic amounts found in our food supply, the results may under-represent what’s actually in the foods kids eat.

For children who show sensitivity to artificial food dye, yes, limit their intake or be sure to reduce their exposure to it.

Specifically, limit the artificial food color load to 100 milligrams/day or less.

Now what?!

Recent evidence shows that there’s a connection between food dye and behavior. Whether you decide to reduce, eliminate, or do nothing about artificial food colors, it’s beneficial to know about them, understand where you find them, and to get a sense of the amounts in your family’s diet.

If you have a child who shows sensitivity to artificial food colors, I suggest you start down-grading those dye-filled food sources. Look for healthy dye-free foods for your family’s diet.

I know that sounds simplistic, and I know it’s not necessarily easy.

However, any small step to reduce or eliminate the load of artificial food dyes in your child’s diet will be a step in the right direction.

Here are some reasons:

  • Dyes have no health or nutritional benefits.
  • Some children consume a substantial amount of artificial food colors throughout their diet.
  • Artificial dyes that alter neurobehavior in sensitive kids, whether or not they have ADHD, are not desirable for children.

What do you think about artificial food colors?

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