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FDA Probes Link Between Food Dyes, Kids' Behavior

FDA Probes Link Between Food Dyes, Kids' Behavior

February 28, 2018

March 30, 201112:01 AM ET

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No More Little Red Dinosaurs

Christine Woodman of Fairfax, Va., first noticed her children were having trouble focusing on school projects and were acting way too reckless at home when they were in elementary school. She suspected they might have ADHD.

Woodman's daughter, Dawnielle, is 19 now, but she remembers a particular incident: the time she thought it would be fun to take some blankets from her bed and slide down the basement stairs on them.

"It was really fun and funny until I got my head stuck in the wall," Dawnielle says.

Christine was reluctant at first to take her kids to the doctor for their hyperactive behavior. She lived in the Pacific Northwest at the time, and the family embraced a theme common among their friends and neighbors.

"What is natural is good; what isn't natural was bad," she remembers.

On the advice of friends, Christine decided to start by cutting out foods with artificial coloring, but Dawnielle didn't really go for it. She missed her favorite oatmeal with little red-colored dinosaurs in it. Christine tried a substitute. "You know, I made the oatmeal with blueberries and soymilk and thought you would be happy with it," she says to Dawnielle.

"I was not. That was not a good replacement," Dawnielle says, laughing.

But it was tough back then. After a year of trying various diets — from eliminating food dyes to eliminating dairy — her children's behavior never really changed, Christine says.

She finally took them to a pediatrician, who diagnosed them with ADHD and prescribed medication. The difference was stunning, Christine says.

"Suddenly, my world came back together and I could do stuff," Dawnielle says. She went from being the class clown to being the class example.

Diets A Popular First Step

A lot of people try "elimination diets" to address their kids' behavior, and many say they work. The diet idea dates back to the1970s, when pediatrician Benjamin Feingold first claimed that there was a link between behavior and food dyes.

The diet he prescribed eliminated food dyes and other food additives, like the common preservatives BHT and BHA.

Artificial food dyes might be an easy target for elimination because they aren't essential to food.

"Food dyes are added simply for their color to make foods fun. They serve no health purpose whatsoever," says Michael Jacobson, director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

CSPI wants the FDA to ban eight artificial food dyes. Jacobson is particularly concerned with Red No. 40, Yellow No. 5 and Yellow No. 6, which make up 90 percent of the food dyes on the market.

Their use has gone up fivefold in the past 50 years. "That's a good indication of how much junk food we're consuming," he says.

Jacobson says there is substantial evidence showing that food dyes trigger hyperactivity in kids. But other experts question that conclusion.

Before Wednesday's meeting, the FDA released its analysisof 35 years of scientific studies. It finds no conclusive proof that food dyes cause hyperactivity in most kids, although it suggests that some kids with ADHD may be particularly sensitive to them.

Andrew Adesman, chief of developmental and behavioral pediatrics at the Steven and Alexandra Cohen Children's Medical Center of New York, says more studies are needed and that the current studies leave a lot of room for doubt.

"Some of the studies are difficult or imperfect in that they don't always tease out specific chemicals in isolation," he says. "But there is this body of literature that does suggest that food colorings are not as benign as people have been led to believe."

European Action On Food Dyes

A 2007 British study known as the Southampton study has become something of a flashpoint in the current debate. In it, 3- and 8-year-olds were given two kinds of drinks that contained a mix of dyes. Afterward, parents reported a significant increase in hyperactivity. But teachers and independent observers didn't, critics say. Also, because the dyes were mixed together, it's hard to tell which might be causing a problem...

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