Food Colorings and ADHD: Should All Artificial Food Colorings Be Banned?

Eileen Bailey Health Guide
  • It's been researched and tested, it has been debated over and over. Do food colorings, especially red dye and yellow dye cause hyperactivity? Are they one of the causes of ADHD? Most of the research has shown little to back up the claim that these dyes cause ADHD. But this week the FDA will be revisiting the argument and discussing whether artificial dyes should be banned or carry a warning about possible behavioral problems.


    I can tell you, from experience, that red dye can, in some children cause behavioral problems. When my son was just a baby, he had chronic ear infections. As any good mother, I took him to the doctor and dutifully gave him the pink antibiotics. Every time, about three days after he started the antibiotics, he got worse. The ear infection was getting better but he cried, screamed, stopped sleeping and couldn't be consoled.  I didn't know what was going on and didn't know what to do. He needed the medication. When I spoke with the doctor, he thought he was having stomach pains from the medication and tried a different one. It happened again. Then miraculously, three days after he stopped the medication, all the crying was gone.

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    This happened over and over until one day a friend suggested it was the red in the medicine. She had had the same problem with her son. Once they prescribed medication without dye (hard to find in those days) it ended. The next time he had an ear infection, I asked for different medication, a white antibiotic and, amazingly, there were no problems.


    From that day on, all foods containing red dye were banned from my home. By the time my son was three he knew how to mix colors, what colors had red in them and when he learned to read we went over the ingredients on packages and he learned to avoid those with red. This was no easy task. I never imagined how many foods had red dye and, in the beginning,  food shopping took hours because I read every label.


    No matter how careful I was, sometimes he had red. It could have been at a birthday party, at school or because we missed something when shopping. Sometimes manufacturers would change their ingredients and a food we didn't think had red suddenly did. It was always easy to spot. Three days after he ate it, he became irritable and defiant. I needed to find patience that even the most patient mother would find difficult. I needed to wait out three days and continue to tell myself it would be over soon. And sure enough, three day later he would be back to normal. I don't know why it showed up three days after eating red and why it lasted for three days, but that's what happened.


    Back then this was unheard of. Doctors didn't believe me, other parents thought I was nuts. But I was diligent. I told other parents it was an allergy because that was easier for them to understand. I told doctors "just appease me" and they did. Throughout the years, I have talked with other parents who have experienced the same thing, although not many.


    So do I believe red dye should be banned? Absolutely. It is unnecessary and many unknowing parents may have behavioral problems that are caused by these artificial colorings. But do I believe artificial coloring causes ADHD? Absolutely not. Whether he ate something with red or not, my son had symptoms of ADHD, lack of focus, impulsiveness, hyperactivity. With red, he was also angry and defiant.


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    According to an article on NBCNews, staff at the FDA stated that research has shown that some children may be affected by food colorings. The article also states that Michael Jacobson from the Center for Science in the Public Interest (the organization which wants dyes banned) said, "Why accept any impairment of kids' behavior whatsoever? Hyperactivity isn't just running around. It affects their ability to have friends, to study, to have a happy family life. Why impair that?"


    The FDA has previously indicated that dyes are completely safe but they are reviewing information from various studies and listening to experts in the field to determine if dyes should be completely banned, warning labels should be placed on foods containing dyes or if there is insufficient evidence to do anything. A recommendation of action, or a recommendation to do nothing, is expected on Thursday.


    No matter what the recommendations of the committee, you can remove dye from your child's diet for a few weeks and see if it makes any difference. If you choose to do so, I would suggest removing one, such as red for a period of one month and keep a log of behavior during that time. At the end of the month, you can remove another dye from your child's diet and repeat the experiment. The Feingold diet removes all artificial colorings and additives and then slowly adds them back in, watching behaviors as each one is added. You will need to decide what is best for your family.


    What about you? Has your child had behavioral changes that you think were due to artificial colorings? Please let us know about your experiences.


    For more information:

    Have you heard about the ADHD diet?


    Diet Changes May Help Some ADHD Children Better Than Drugs: Expert


    Should you or Your Child try the GFCF (Gluten-free Casein-free) Diet?


    Diet, Exercise and ADHD Quiz


Published On: March 30, 2011