ADD and ADHD are among the most commonly diagnosed psychiatric disorders among children and adolescents in the US. Children with ADD/ADHD may have difficulty paying attention, or they may be hyperactive and impulsive. Some children display all three types of behavior. The connection between artificial food dyes and ADD/ADHD behavior in children has been under investigation since the 1970’s. Many studies have linked food-coloring agents to hyperactivity in ADD/ADHD children, as well as increases in hyperactive and disruptive behavior in children not diagnosed ADD/ADHD. While food dyes may not be the main cause of ADHD, they have been shown to contribute significantly to symptoms, and in some cases may push a child over the diagnostic threshold.

Daily consumption of food dyes has increased four-fold in the past 50 years. Artificial food dyes have been around since the early 1900’s, when scientists began formulating synthetic artificial food dyes from coal tar (petroleum). Over 80 dyes were created; however, after further testing, almost all were found to have adverse health effects. By 1938, only 15 remained legal; today, only 7 are FDA-approved. Others have been banned after numerous studies and consumer reports linked them to hyperactivity and ADHD, along with allergic reactions, migraines, increased anxiety, and cancer.

Numerous studies have linked artificial food dyes to increased hyperactivity, nervous/restless behavior, anxiety, irritability and poor sleep. A study published in Science indicated that children with ADD/ADHD showed lower performance on learning tests taken on days they consumed food dyes, compared to days free from food dyes.

Artificial food dyes have been shown to affect the brain and behavior in a number of ways. Food colorings have been shown to increase loss of minerals through urine, especially zinc. Zinc is important for general brain function and is concentrated in the hippocampus, an area of the brain involved in behavior control, hyperactivity and memory. Low levels of zinc have been associated with decreased learning ability, lethargy, and mental retardation. Food dyes have also been shown to cause iron loss in urine. Iron is required for proper oxygen flow to the brain, and low iron has been linked to decreased brain function, behavioral problems, and developmental delays.

Additionally, food colorings and other artificial additives put an extra strain on the liver, responsible for breaking down and removing them from the body. This process reduces stores of B vitamins, which are necessary for making neurotransmitters, the chemical messengers that allow communication between brain cells.

Artificial food colorings also increase release of histamine, a chemical produced during allergic responses. Due to genetic and other factors, some children and adults do not break down histamine well; high histamine appears to have an “excitatory” effect on the brain, so increased histamine may contribute to hyperactivity, aggressiveness, and impulsive behavior in sensitive individuals.

The seven food dyes still on the market are found in a variety of foods. These include:

  • Blue #1 (Brilliant Blue): cereals, candy, soda, gum, lunchables
  • Blue #2 (Indigotine): kids’ cereals, cake mixes, frostings, M&M’s, candy
  • Green #3: candy, beverages, ice cream, pudding
  • Red #3 (Carmoisine): candy, cake, gum
  • Red #40 (Allura Red): cereals, lunchables, frostings, instant oatmeal
  • Yellow #5 (Tartrazine): cereal, chips, crackers, pudding, mac and cheese, frozen waffles
  • Yellow #6 (Sunset Yellow): cereals, chips, crackers, puddings, gelatin desserts, frozen kids’ meals, candy, soda

Eliminating food colorings from the diet appears to be an effective and simple measure both for prevention and treatment of ADHD behavior. The Feingold Diet, developed by a pediatric allergist, is one of the leading dietary approaches for treating hyperactive behavior in children that removes synthetic dyes, along with other artificial food chemicals and preservatives.

Fortunately, natural alternatives are becoming more popular in today’s market, and manufacturers have begun using food based coloring agents, such as beta-carotene, grape skin extract, caramel color, and saffron, in place of synthetics. Individual colors for cooking and baking can be created using a variety of food-based ingredients at home. Try the following:

  • Red: beet juice, pomegranate juice, raspberry juice
  • Pink: beet juice, pomegranate juice
  • Orange: carrot juice, paprika
  • Yellow: turmeric, saffron, annato
  • Green: matcha tea powder, spirulina, spinach juice/powder
  • Blue: blueberry juice, blackberry juice
  • Purple: purple grape juice
  • Brown: instant coffee, cocoa powder, cinnamon
  • Black: activated charcoal powder, squid ink

References:

Arnold, L. Eugene,  Lofthouse, Nicholas, & Hurt, Elizabeth (July 2012). Artificial Food Colors and Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Symptoms: Conclusions to Dye For. Neurotherapeutics. 9(3): 599–609. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3441937/#CR56

Faber, Kresha (9/7/2013). Homemade Food Coloring: How to Make Natural Fodd Dyes. https://nourishingjoy.com/homemade-natural-food-dyes/

Haas HL, Sergeeva OA, Selbach O. Histamine in the nervous system. Physiol Rev. 2008; 88:1183-241.

Health.com (2014). 9 Food Additives That May Affect ADHD https://www.health.com/health/gallery/0,,20439038_last,00.html.

Hennessey, Rachel (8/27/2012). Living in Color: The Potential Dangers of Artificial Dyes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/rachelhennessey/2012/08/27/living-in-color-the-potential-dangers-of-artificial-dyes/

Schab DW, Trinh N-H T. Do Artificial Food Colorings Promote Hyperactivity in Children with Hyperactive Syndromes? A Meta-Analysis of Double-Blind Placebo-Controlled Trials. J Dev Behav Pediatr. 2004; 25:423-34.