The Food Dye Blues

As families are consuming more artificial colors than ever, scientists weigh in on whether there's truly cause for concern.
Food Dyes

Marcus Nilsson

The tantrums were "epic" remembers Brianne DeRosa. The Cranston, Rhode Island, mom admits that her 5-year-old son, Patrick, is still sometimes challenging. But when he was a toddler, he had rage-filled episodes at day care and couldn't be calmed. The center wanted Patrick to be evaluated for mood disorders, sensory problems, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). DeRosa wasn't convinced. Since his behavior improved over the weekends, she wondered whether the packaged snacks served at day care could be the culprit.

When she asked for the labels and combed through the ingredients, she kept spotting synthetic food dyes. She asked the teacher to stop giving him the colored snacks, and his tantrums disappeared after a couple of days. "Within a few weeks, it was like nothing was wrong," says DeRosa.

Man-made food dyes have been in the U.S. food supply for more than 150 years. It's easy to spot them in hot-pink bubble gum and neon-green ice pops. But they also color many other foods families eat on a daily basis, such as waffles, pickles, and salad dressing. They're in foods that aren't even brightly colored, including vanilla frosting, white marshmallows, and brown cereal. And they lend brilliant hues to so many products marketed to kids, including cereal bars, fruit drinks, and pudding cups. Americans now consume more than five times the amount of synthetic food coloring that we did in the 1950s, according to data from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

But food dyes make some parents nervous. In a recent poll of Parents readers, 92 percent said they were concerned about food dyes -- with nearly 20 percent saying they were very concerned. Although red flags have been raised about food dyes since the 1970s -- when researchers began investigating a potential connection between dyes and hyperactivity -- the evidence seems to be building that there's reason for worry. In 2010, the FDA acknowledged that substances in foods, including food coloring, may exacerbate ADHD in some susceptible kids. But the agency insists that they don't affect enough of the population to warrant action and noted that food coloring is safe and tightly regulated. Opponents believe products containing food coloring should carry a warning label -- or be banned outright. So is ditching dyes the right thing to do?

What Makes a Rainbow

Nine synthetic color additives are approved for use in food by the FDA, though just three -- Red 40, Yellow 5, and Yellow 6 -- make up roughly 90 percent of the coloring we eat.

You may have heard that dyes are made from petroleum. It's true that petroleum is the source of molecules made up of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen that become the building blocks for dyes. But that doesn't mean that drums of crude oil are poured into vats of Yellow 6. Those molecules are isolated from petroleum, purified, and used by food manufacturers in powder, liquid, or crystal form. Consider other products similarly made with building blocks from petroleum: vitamins, aspirin, and even anti-cancer drugs. According to FDA consumer-safety officer Carrie McMahon, Ph.D., the agency puts all color additives through a "rigorous" approval process, requiring manufacturers to submit scientific proof that the coloring is safe. The FDA also checks color additives for contaminants such as lead each time a new batch is made for production.

The Attention Connection

Worries about food coloring and cancer risk have been around for decades, especially after the FDA stopped allowing the use of Red 2 in the late 1970s when it was found to be a potential carcinogen. But the body of research on food coloring and cancer is still small and has been done on animals. "There have been a few studies raising grounds for concern but nothing definitive," says Parents advisor David Ludwig, M.D., Ph.D., director of the New Balance Foundation Obesity Prevention Center at Boston Children's Hospital.

There's much more research -- and significant findings -- about how dyes might affect children's behavior. In the 1970s, one of the first people to suggest a link between color additives and hyperactivity was Ben Feingold, M.D., chief of allergy at Kaiser-Permanente Medical Center in San Francisco. He created what later became known as the "Feingold Diet for ADHD" (which eliminates synthetic dyes, artificial flavors, and some preservatives). In the following decades, research on food coloring and behavior was sparse. Then last year an analysis of 24 studies by researchers at Oregon Health and Science University in Portland found an association between food dyes and increased ADHD symptoms in children that, while modest in size, was "too substantial to dismiss." The authors estimated that 8 percent of children with ADHD have symptoms that are worsened or even caused by food coloring. Considering the fact that 5.9 million American kids have been diagnosed with ADHD, hundreds of thousands of kids could be affected and helped by avoiding dyes.

When Emily Martin's daughter, Alex, started having attention problems in first grade -- falling behind and having trouble focusing and calming down -- her teacher suggested removing dyes from her diet. So Martin switched the family to dye-free cereal, juice, and macaroni and cheese, and nixed treats like cherry slushies. "After a month, we saw a big difference," says the Mount Vernon, Illinois, mom. So did Alex's teacher. Alex was better able to focus in class and wasn't as easily frustrated.

But some doctors aren't sold. There are many parents who don't move forward with medication and therapy for their child with ADHD because they strongly believe that dietary changes alone will help, says Andrea Chronis-Tuscano, Ph.D., associate professor and director of the Maryland ADHD Program at the University of Maryland, in College Park. "Invest your time and energy in approaches that we know work instead of going with something that has shown mixed results," she says. After Jennifer Lynn-Pullman's son, Tyler, was diagnosed with ADHD at age 10, she tried cutting out dyes. But when there wasn't improvement within a few months, the Warrington, Pennsylvania, mom opted for medication. "Tyler's coming home with positive stickers on his papers now," she says.

A possible explanation for the differing results: "There seems to be a wide variation in how children respond to dyes," says Jim Stevenson, Ph.D., professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Southampton, in the United Kingdom. Some kids with ADHD may not respond at all when dyes are removed, some may show improvements from simply reducing the amount of dyes they get, and others may do best having none.

When to Worry: Food Allergies
When to Worry: Food Allergies

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