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Can Artificial Food Dyes Cause ADHD Symptoms?

written by: maryalene • edited by: Paul Arnold • updated: 9/11/2010

Food dyes have been used for decades, and their safety has been questioned for nearly as long. Recently published research suggests that these additives may be responsible for increased cases of ADHD, allergies and even cancer.

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    For ADHD sufferers and their families, the cause of the disorder is often a mystery. Theories ranging from genetics to infant immunizations have been suggested during the last few decades. Although not a new idea, the link between food dye and ADHD is gaining new attention. Recent studies seem to solidify the claim that color additives, while not solely responsible for ADHD, can significantly increase ADHD symptoms in children.

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    The Link Between Artificial Food Dye and ADHD

    The idea that food dyes cause ADHD was first popularized by Dr. Benjamin Feingold in the 1960s and 70s. His Feingold Diet advocated the elimination of artificial food dyes and additives from American diets. While embraced by many, subsequent research on the subject was inconsistent in finding a direct correlation between artificial food dyes and ADHD.

    Largely hidden from the mainstream for years, the case against artificial food dyes has once again come into the light. In 2007, a study conducted by researchers at the University of Southampton in the United Kingdom demonstrated that artificial food dyes as well as the preservative sodium benzoate increased ADHD symptoms in both hyperactive and non-hyperactive children. A follow-up study in 2010 by the same researchers further explores the link between food dye, ADHD and histamine, and may account for the uneven results seen in previous studies on the subject.

    In addition to the 2007 study, a recent report issued by the Center for Science in the Public Interest compiles data from a number of studies related to artificial food dyes. The report, entitled A Rainbow of Risks, argues that artificial food dyes are not safe for human consumption and can be connected to incidences of allergies, ADHD and even cancer. In particular, the survey singles out Yellow 5 dye for its role in promoting hyperactivity in children.

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    FDA Position on the Correlation Between Artificial Food Dye and ADHD

    Although a preponderance of research seems to support the assumption that artificial food dyes affect ADHD symptoms, the Food and Drug Administration does not appear ready to take steps to limit or ban the substances from the U.S. food supply. On its website, the FDA notes a 1997 review in the Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry which discourages the use of elimination diets, such as the Feingold Program, to treat ADHD symptoms.

    In regards to the 2007 Southampton study, the FDA states that both it and the European Food Safety Authority independently reviewed the study’s findings. Both concluded that it did not conclusively connect food dye with ADHD symptoms.

    While the FDA remains unconvinced of the negative health effects of food dyes, other countries are taking notice. The European Union now requires food labels to include a warning if food dyes are included. In addition, Britain is asking its food manufacturers to phase out use of most food dyes by the end of the 2010.

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    Food Dye ADHD

    There is little doubt that the debate about whether food dye affects ADHD symptoms will continue well into the future. However, the tide seems to be turning toward a positive link between the two. With renewed focus on the subject of food dye, ADHD and behavioral impact, the definitive answer may be known soon. As Dr. Bonnie Kaplan noted in her September 2010 editorial in the American Journal of Psychiatry: “Whether the focus is on putting something into the diet (micronutrients) or taking something out (artificial food colors), the recent research on nutrition and mental health is progressing rapidly.”

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    References

    Sean Poulter. “Additives DO harm children – and a ban could cut child hyperactivity by a third, say scientists” The Daily Mail. April 10, 2008 (http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-558368/Additives-DO-harm-children--ban-cut-child-hyperactivity-say-scientists.html)

    Sarah Kobylewski and Michael Jacobson. “Food Dyes, A Rainbow of Risks” The Center for Science in the Public Interest. June 2010 (http://cspinet.org/new/pdf/food-dyes-rainbow-of-risks.pdf)

    David W. Freeman. “Food Dyes Linked to Allergies, ADHD and Cancer: Group Calls on US to Outlaw Their Use” CBS News Health. June 29, 2010 (http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-504763_162-20009228-10391704.html)

    Donna McCann, et al. “Food additives and hyperactive behaviour in 3-year-old and 8/9-year-old children in the community: a randomised, double-blinded, placebo-controlled trial” The Lancet. September 6, 2007 (http://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140673607613063/abstract?isEOP=true)

    Bonnie J. Kaplan. “Food Additives and Behavior: First Genetic Insights” The American Journal of Psychiatry. September 2010 (http://ajp.psychiatryonline.org/cgi/content/full/167/9/1023)

    Food and Drug Administration. “Questions and Answers About Food and Color Additives” Accessed September 10, 2010 (http://www.fda.gov/food/foodingredientspackaging/ucm094211.htm#qa)