Artificial Food Colorings and Hyperactivity

Eileen Bailey Health Guide

    This past Tuesday, the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer advocacy group, contacted the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and requested a ban on eight artificial food colorings, claiming they cause hyperactivity and behavioral problems in children.


    Food additives, including artificial colorings are tested prior to their approval to be in products marketed to consumers. According to the FDA, there is no evidence to indicate food colorings are not safe for consumption. The FDA's statement includes: "...well-controlled studies conducted since (the 1970s) have produced no evidence that food additives cause hyperactivity or learning disabilities in children."

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    Although I normally write only about factually based information and do not lead myself (or my readers) to studies without scientific backing, I will share my experience with food colorings. In addition to my own personal experiences, I have heard this claim from a few other people as well. I do not believe it is a reason to take artificial food colorings off the market, although I do believe avoiding such products in their diet may help individual children.


    When my son was one year old, he developed chronic ear infections and was given antibiotics on numerous occasions. While he was an active baby, he was generally a happy baby. However, a strange reaction occurred when he took antibiotics. A few days after he began taking them, he would become extremely cranky, spending the day crying, becoming very demanding and would sleep only sporadically. A few times I took him back to the doctor, believing the ear infection had not cleared up, yet it had. Finally, after days of nerve-racking crying, it would subside and he would be back to the happy baby I knew.


    This happened over and over. A friend suggested it was the red dye in the medication, as her child had the same type reaction and she discovered that the red dye was causing the behavior. Although many doctors did not believe my friend, she was sure she was right and when she avoided any foods containing red dye (a formidable task to be sure), her son's behavior improved dramatically. 


    I went along with her hypothesis and sure enough, his behavior would change when he consumed red dye. But it wasn't an immediate reaction, it began three days after he consumed it and lasted for three long days. Then it was over.


    We avoided everything containing red in my house. As my son got older, food shopping took longer as I read all labels to be sure nothing contained red dye. By the time my son was three he not only knew his colors, he knew how colors were made. He knew that orange, purple, pink and brown all contained red. He knew by looking at it what he could eat and what he could not eat (mostly anyway, some are hidden from view and you must read labels.) He learned to swallow pills by the time he was two as children's medications, for some reason, are almost all colored with red dye.


    When red was ingested by accident, we prepared for the behaviors that were sure to follow. He would become angry, he would have temper tantrums, he would throw things, he would be defiant, he would not sleep.  Waiting out the three days was our only option.


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    My friend was right, most doctors did not believe me. Some would appease me and prescribe medications in pill form. Others insisted on telling me that food colorings just did not cause that type of reaction.


    As the years went on, my husband and I could always tell when my son had consumed something with red dye in it by his impulsiveness, his anger and his defiance. We would wait out the three days for it to be over and then life could get back to normal.


    And so, although there is no scientific data to support this theory, I would suggest that parents think about this if they have a defiant or angry child. Try avoiding products with artificial food colorings for a few weeks. See if there are any behavior changes. For some children it may help. For others, there may be no change.



Published On: June 04, 2008