Children and Families

Food dye and ADHD: an old controversy gets new consideration

Posted April 04, 2011, at 1:18 p.m.
The federal Food and Drug Administration says there's not enough evidence to establish a link between food dyes and hyperactive behavior in children.
Associated Press photo
The federal Food and Drug Administration says there's not enough evidence to establish a link between food dyes and hyperactive behavior in children.

By Ric Kristal, Ph.D

Ever since they became grandparents nearly nine years ago, my parents have been particularly attuned to news stories that deal with any potential dangers to their grandchildren. And they want to make certain my wife and I know all about these dangers. Over the past nine years, we have survived the “vaccinations and the possible link to autism” scare and the “lead based paint in toys from China” worry. Ever mindful of the rising rates of obesity in children and the efforts of First Lady Michelle Obama on the subject, I was a little taken aback when my mother asked me if the pediatrician had calculated the kids’ BMI the last time they got weighed.

When it was reported that the FDA would be reviewing recent studies of food coloring and dyes and its effect on children’s behavior, particularly hyperactivity, I was not surprised to receive a now familiar phone call. These calls invariably come at the worst possible time, which in our household, is any time after the two older children, ages 6 and 8, come home from school. This time it was during the bath hour, when my wife and I were wrestling the boys into the tub and trying to keep our one year old daughter from drowning her socks in the running water. It was my father.

“Turn on Brian Williams, he is doing a story you might want to see.”  I heard him say something about colors or coloring. It wasn’t until I got downstairs, away from the din, that I watched the story about a family who eliminated processed foods and food dyes from the diets of their children, and saw their children’s attention deficit hyperactivity symptoms significantly decrease.

I was initially relieved to find out my father had not lost it completely, asking me watch a story about coloring. But once again, the popular media had done it again, putting out a story without the necessary time to talk about the complexities of the subject, and leaving millions of parents (and well-meaning grandparents) confused, hopeful and scared. In doing my own research on the subject, courtesy of Web MD and other news outlets, I learned that the concern about the association between artificial colors in food and hyperactive behavior goes back at least 40 years. Back in the 1970s, a pediatrician named Ben Feingold proposed eliminating artificial colors from the diets of children in an effort to treat hyperactivity. Some studies have disproved Dr. Feingold’s theory, while anecdotally; some parents who have tried a dye-free diet have seen improvements in their child’s behavior.

It makes intuitive sense that the purer one’s diet, the healthier the individual is likely to be. To date, however, there has been no conclusive evidence to show that food coloring causes attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). The studies that have been conducted have not used a standard methodology in their research, making the data difficult to interpret. Thus far, it is only possible to conclude there MAY be an association between the consumption of a diet high in food coloring and ADHD. Many artificial colors used in foods are known as azo compounds, which resemble pharmaceutical drugs. These food additives can affect health and behavior.

What may be beneficial about this renewed controversy is that the FDA, which regulates color additives to ensure they are safe, may be forced to take a second look at them (and there are now dozens, compared to the five or six that were used forty years ago) to make sure there is no harm to consumers. Packaging warnings may be enhanced, as they are in many European countries. It is also a pointed reminder to us that the food we should be eating the most of—fruit, vegetables and whole grains—typically do not need to have their appearance enhanced. Even if attention deficit hyperactivity disorder is not an issue for us personally, limiting processed food or food in need of a color transformation is ultimately to everyone’s benefit.

Ric Kristal is a clinical psychologist praticing in Bangor.

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