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Seeing Red: Time for Action on Food Dyes

Seeing Red: Time for Action on Food Dyes

February 19, 2018

Source Document:


Executive Summary In the early 1970s, an allergist, based on observation of his patients, first proposed that food dyes and other chemicals in food can trigger symptoms of inattention and hyperactivity. That hypothesis generated enormous interest among parents and researchers.

The first controlled studies of behavioral effects of dyes on children with suspected sensitivities were conducted in the late 1970s. More than 30 studies were conducted over the following several decades. Two large studies done in the United Kingdom found that dyes appear to affect the behavior of children in the general population.

Since FDA last examined the issue in 2011, eight major independent analyses, including two meta-analyses, concluded that excluding food dyes, or a diet that eliminates dyed foods and certain other foods and ingredients, reduces adverse behavior in some children.

The mounting evidence has led to a growing consensus among researchers, physicians, psychologists, and others who treat patients with such behavioral disorders as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) that avoidance of food dyes benefits some children.

Recent analyses of the dye content of foods and beverages indicate that many American children are consuming amounts of dyes far higher than the levels demonstrated in some clinical trials to impair the behavior of susceptible children. The amount of dyes contained in just a single cupcake or glass of Kool-Aid can be enough to prompt adverse behavioral reactions in certain children.

We estimate that over half a million children in the United States suffer adverse behavioral reactions after ingesting food dyes, with an estimated cost exceeding $5 billion per year, using information cited by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and a recent meta-analysis sponsored by an arm of the food industry. The harm to children and the costs to society from dyes are needless and preventable.

A study of food labels in one supermarket found that more than 90 percent of childoriented candies, fruit-flavored snacks, and drink mixes and powders are artificially colored. A majority of child-oriented foods made by such companies as Kraft, PepsiCo, and General Mills are dyed.

Dyes confer no health or nutritional benefit. They are completely unnecessary, but are sometimes used to spare companies the expense of using actual fruit or other “real” ingredients, and to trick consumers into thinking the colors in blueberry muffins, breakfast cereals, or fruit-flavored beverages derive from real fruits and vegetables, rather than synthetic chemicals.

In response to the accumulating evidence, the British government and the European Union took actions to inform and protect the public from the risks of dyes. Warnings are now required on most dyed foods sold in the EU. The British government encouraged companies to find alternatives and issued public advisories to inform families that eliminating certain food dyes might benefit children with hyperactivity or ADHD. 

Most companies reformulated their products sold in Europe, eliminating dyes to avoid having to include a warning label on their packages. But some of the same companies continue to sell the same foods in the United States with artificial food dyes in them.

In contrast to the European actions, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has failed to protect or even inform consumers of the risks of dyes to children. The FDA last examined the issue in 2011 when it convened an advisory committee to review the evidence on associations between food dyes and children’s behavior, in response to a Citizen Petition filed by the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI).

At the meeting, FDA acknowledged that “For certain susceptible children with Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder and other problem behaviors, however, the data suggest that their condition may be exacerbated by exposure to a number of substances in food, including, but not limited to, synthetic color additives.”

Yet rather than asking the committee whether dyes therefore violate the federal safety standard for color additives, FDA asked whether there was a causal link between dye consumption in the general population and adverse behavior—a difficult scientific question to answer, and one that is unnecessary, given the requirement that dyes meet the federal safety standard for color additives.

Committee members raised serious questions about the FDA’s general dismissal of the neurobehavioral toxicity of dyes, the agency’s poorly done estimates of children’s exposure to dyes, and its estimation of safe levels for dyes. The committee recommended that FDA require additional safety testing of dyes and develop a robust intake estimate. In a closely divided vote, the committee did not recommend that the FDA require a warning notice on the labels of foods containing dyes.

Meanwhile, independent analyses published since FDA’s 2011 meeting confirm the link between food dyes and adverse behavior and demonstrate that dyes fail to meet the federal safety standard for color additives, which requires convincing evidence that dyes are safe under the law.

First-hand testimonials included in this report illustrate the difficulties parents and children face in dealing with the adverse reactions triggered by dyes. Parents recount troubling episodes of hyperactivity, inattention, repetitive motions, aggression, and even violence. When their children avoided artificial colorings, they saw dramatic improvements in their child’s behavior.

Despite government inaction, adverse publicity about dyes has prompted several major companies to pledge to stop using them in at least some of their products. Those companies include Kraft, Campbell Soup, Frito-Lay, General Mills, Kellogg, Chick-fil-A, Panera, Subway, and Taco Bell.

Even with those welcome voluntary commitments, foods made with dyes are still commonplace in supermarkets, schools, and restaurants, which puts the burden on families to learn of dyes’ effects and try to keep their children from eating dyed foods. To protect children’s health, FDA should revoke approvals for all food dyes. Until it takes that action, the FDA should follow the lead of European authorities and encourage companies to reformulate foods without dyes and require dyed foods to bear a label warning consumers that dyes can trigger behavioral problems in children.


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