by Marion Nestle
Mar 31 2011

What’s up with food dyes and hyperactivity?

 I’ve been waiting to see what the FDA panel did before commenting on this week’s hearings on food dyes and hyperactivity in young children. 

According to reports from CNN and from the New York Times, the panel decided—to do nothing. 

Research, says the FDA panel, is insufficient to conclude that food dyes cause hyperactivity.  Despite much concern about this issue in Great Britain, the FDA will not put a warning label on foods that contain the dyes. 

This is déjà vu all over again.  When I first became interested in nutrition in the mid-1970s, food dyes were a big issue.   

Hyperactivity in kids was a new thing.  Ben Feingold, a physician in California, said that a diet devoid of food colors would help calm kids down. 

The Feingold Association still encourages that diet.

But scientfic tests of the Feingold hypothesis produced mixed effects.  In 1980, Science magazine published two reports of such tests. 

The first”by James M. Swanson and Marcel Kinsbourne (Science 1980;207:1485-87) gave pills containing a mix of food additives to 40 children, 20 diagnosed as hyperactive and 20 not.  The children diagnosed with hyperactivity reacted to the food additive challenge but the other children did not.

This study, however, was criticized for using pills, mixing additives, and evaluating the kids’ behavior by methods that were controversial.

A second study (Weiss, et al. Science 1980;207:1487-89) made a valiant effort to correct for those problems.  It created two drinks that looked and tasted the same, one with a blend of seven food colors and one without.    The study was carefully designed to be triple-blind.  The drinks were formulated to look the same and neither the kids, parents, or observers knew what the kids were drinking.  The drinks were tested at different times on 22 kids.

The result?  Twenty of the 22 kids showed no reaction to the dyes.  One showed occasional reactions. 

But one child reacted to the dyes every time.

The interpretation?  A small percentage of kids may react to food dyes.

That was pretty much the end of that except for petitions by Center for Science in the Public Interest to get rid of food dyes.

There things rested until 2007 when a study in England revived the issue.

Food dyes have only one purpose: to sell junk foods.  Candy, Cheetos, and sodas that are brightly colored are perceived as tasting better than the grey alternatives.  The food industry needs food dyes badly.

But nobody else does.  Parents of hyperactive kids can easily do their own experiment and see if removing food colors helps calm their kids down. 

Food dyes have no health benefits that I can think of.  Kids don’t need to be eating those foods anyway.  Kids will not be harmed by avoiding food dyes.

It would be nice to have more conclusive research.  In the meantime, read food labels!

  • Unfortunately, we learned the tough lesson tonight that parents also need to read medication labels. It totally slipped my mind, and it was a big slip.

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  • Ashley

    Hyperactivity has nothing to do with food dyes. It has to do with parents that are not ready or should not be having children, cannot manage to discipline their kids, hop them up on junk food, soda and cupcakes to make them “be quiet” and ignore them. You fill a kid with sugar and ignore them then think they’re going to just calmly sit down and do homework. How ignorant has as parenting nation become. Your kids need you!

  • ADHD sufferer

    As an adult with ADHD who directly suffers hyperactivity episodes from food dyes and has had my wife test this on me and had me log my ‘episodes’ to prove that my hyperactivity worsened on food dyes, I say shame on you for spouting nonsense and hurtful speech at parents doing everything they can to help their child find the ability to control their own behavior. Before you say such self righteous crap, take a moment to get to know these parents and their struggle, and then, if you still feel it is bad parenting, feel free to chide their parenting skills. Don’t speak of what you know nothing about.