Dangers of Food Coloring: Learn Why Food Coloring Could Be the Cause of Your Child’s Hyperactivity

Dangers of Food Coloring: Learn Why Food Coloring Could Be the Cause of Your Child’s Hyperactivity
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Unless you buy only whole, fresh foods or grow your own, you consume additives, such as food coloring, daily. Artificial and natural colors are added to a variety of products like food, medication and cosmetics in order to enhance the appearance of the product. Consumers are growing more concerned about the possible dangers of food coloring in the products they use, and many are asking if they are really safe.

Color Additives Defined

According to the Food and Drug Administration, food coloring is made from a dye or pigment added to make the product look more desirable or to maintain a desirable color. These products include food, cosmetics and medications. The FDA carefully monitors color additives for content, safety and appropriate labeling and offer several reasons for adding color to foods: to stabilize the natural color of products exposed to light or heat, to provide uniform color to natural imperfections in products, to enhance its natural color or to make food look “fun.” (Reference 1) The colors deemed safe by the FDA are divided into two categories, those that are “certified,” and those “exempt from certification.” The former consists of man-made colors and have passed “rigorous safety standards.” The latter are colors that are derived from natural sources such as beets, grapes or caramel. (Ref 1)


A study published in the November 2007 issue of “The Lancet,” evaluated 153 children age 3 and 144 children ages 8 and 9 for hyperactivity caused by food coloring and/or preservatives. The children received a drink containing either food coloring, the preservative sodium benzoate, a mixture of the two or a placebo. Following consumption of the drink, the children participated in a series of tests designed to measure hyperactivity. The results showed that both the artificial color and the preservative caused increased hyperactivity in both age groups. (Ref 2) An earlier study in 1994 published by the Journal of Pediatrics also found a correlation between the synthetic food coloring tartrazine and behavior change in children to include “irritability, restlessness, and sleep disturbances.” (Ref 5)

European Union Revises Standards

Following the release of the study results, the United Kingdom revised their Food Standards Agency guidelines on artificial colors recommending parents who notice hyperactivity in their children avoid the following colors: Sunset yellow, Quinoline yellow, Carmoisine, Allura red, tartrazine and Ponceau 4R. Conversely, they added that studies involving children and hyperactivity can include other factors such as genetics, socialization and environment. Their official statement to parents reads, “If parents are concerned about any additives they should remember that, by law, food additives must be listed on the label so they can make the choice to avoid the product if they want to.” (Ref 3)

Color May Be Carcinogenic

In July, 2007, the European Food Safety Authority banned Red G2 deeming it a “safety concern” based on data from animal studies showing that the color additive, when processed by the body, converts into a carcinogen called aniline. (Ref 4)

Lead Poisoning

The Centers of Disease Control and Prevention issued a press release in December 1998 reporting “two cases of pediatric lead poisoning associated with eating imported candy and food.” The sources were tamarindo candy from Mexico imported by a family member and the spice lozeena, used as a food coloring agent in Iraq. The CDC warns that although there is an embargo on tamarindo candy, it is still being sold in ethnic markets. They attributed the source of lead in these candies to the types of ceramic jars used for storage when combined with this type of candy “increases lead leaching.” Some of the ingredients in the candy are also dried by a “fuel-assisted drying system” that uses leaded gas. They add that ethnic foods often contain lead to increase the color, taste or weight. (Ref 6)


Consumers adopting label-reading practices can limit the dangers of food coloring and reduce potentially harmful exposure. Purchasing foods with natural color additives whenever possible and cooking fresh foods will also reduce unwanted side effects from the additives. Beware of assuming that organic products do not contain artificial coloring or preservatives, check labels carefully.


Food and Drug Administration; “Food Ingredients and Colors”; 2010 - https://www.fda.gov/food/foodingredientspackaging/ucm094211.htm

“The Lancet”; “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”; Donna McCann, Ph.D., et al; November 2007 - https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140673607613063/abstract

Food Standards Agency; “Agency Revised Advice on Certain Artificial Colours”; September 2007 - https://www.food.gov.uk/news/newsarchive/2007/sep/foodcolours

European Food Safety Authority; “EFSA re-evaluates safety of food colours and adopts first opinion: Food colour Red 2G raises potential safety concerns”; July 2007 - https://www.efsa.europa.eu/en/press/news/ans070709.htm

“Journal of Pediatrics”; Synthetic food coloring and behavior: a dose response effect in a double-blind, placebo-controlled, repeated-measures study; K.S. Rowe and K.J. Rowe; November 1994 - https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/7965420

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; “Lead Poisoning Associated with Imported Candy and Powdered Food Coloring – California and Michigan”; 1998 - https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/00055939.htm

Resources For Readers

The FDA’s comprehensive list of food coloring approved for use in the U.S.: https://www.fda.gov/forindustry/coloradditives/coloradditiveinventories/ucm115641.htm

Image Credit

Brian Chase, “Herbs,” www.dreamstime.com