For years parents of kids with hyperactivity and especially those with ADHD have asked me if diet changes will modify their child’s behavior. Some parents have gone to the lengths of removing sugar or wheat or food dyes from their kids’ diets to see if these changes made a difference and in virtually every case I have seen the removal had no longstanding benefit.
A few years ago, a British study purported that six specific food dyes were indeed linked to an increase in hyperactive behavior in young children and as a result, these food additives have been banned from foods in some parts of Europe. Three of the dyes tested in that study are available in the US and a consumer group has now asked the FDA to ban these (and others) from foods here.
Sometimes the FDA receives requests from consumer groups, examines the evidence that has been collected and rejects the request but this time the FDA has decided that more investigation is warranted. In other words, the FDA feels that there is enough of a possibility that food dyes and hyperactive behavior are linked to not just close the door on the issue.
In addition to the British study, many others have been done over the years looking at the relationship between food dyes and behavior and until the British study very few have ever shown a link and many have pretty soundly shown that no link is present. Every study has flaws of course and the older studies may not have isolated the specific dyes clearly enough and as a result even if there was an effect, by not singling these out the results were ‘diluted’ in a way that it looked like no relationship exists. I will be watching closely as additional studies focusing on the dyes in question are done to see if a strong relationship exists.
In the US food dyes are almost everywhere in food you find in a box, bottle, or wrapped. Of course fresh foods like produce aren’t filled with dyes and neither are breads, meats and most dairy products but things like colorful breakfast cereals, candy, and even some types of yogurt, crackers, processed organic foods, and juices will have food dyes on the list of ingredients. If it’s in a box, there’s a decent chance there’s a food dye in it. The most common additive dyes are Red No. 40, Yellow No. 5 and Yellow No. 6 (which make up about 90% of the food dyes in the US market) and these are three of 8 dyes that the FDA is reviewing.
I think it is important to keep this in perspective though. Food dyes are not going to be a cause of ADHD but at most may exacerbate hyperactive behavior in some children who are sensitive to the dyes. I don’t believe that if we banned these additives from kids’ diets that we would have happy, docile children and ‘cure’ ADHD but I do look forward to seeing what the investigation shows and in the meantime I may not choose to have my kids load up on food dye rich foods before I drive 12 hours with them in a car to go on vacation!