When Bobby comes home from school bouncing off the walls, his parents could attribute his behavior to a number of factors: pent-up energy, overstimulation, or maybe a behavioral disorder. But is it possible that dyes in the foods he’s eating could be contributing to his rowdiness?

On Wednesday, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) will host a public meeting to help determine whether a link exists between artificial coloring and hyperactivity in children.

This theory has been debated by researchers and parents for the past 40 years, but was recently given new credence by a 2007 study from South Hampton, UK, which found that children who consumed a mixture of artificial colors and sodium benzoate (a preservative) displayed higher levels of hyperactivity than those who did not.

The results of this research prompted the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), the non-profit nutrition watchdog, to petition FDA to ban the synthetic colors at the center of the study.

Over the next two days, the FDA will hear opinions from experts and interested parties on whether existing evidence supports a connection between artificial dyes and hyperactivity. These opinions will inform FDA’s decision on whether or not to restrict the use of these dyes.

Seven synthetic dyes are currently approved by the FDA for use in the United States. These dyes, including “brilliant blue,” (Blue #1) and “fast green” (Green #3), contribute to making many foods recognizable to consumers. They make mint ice cream green and ketchup red.

The use of these dyes is already closely monitored for safety by the FDA, which will make it difficult to prove that they produce harmful effects in children. Before a dye is approved, it must undergo rigorous testing to determine whether it poses any health risks, both short or long-term. Testing can take up to seven years, according to Joe Borzelleca, professor of Pharmacology and Toxicology at Virginia Commonwealth University’s School of Medicine. 

And dyes are not approved universally, but are OK’d in specific amounts for specific products. FDA also monitors dyes closely once they are in use.

“For something like colors that are ubiquitously found in all foods, consumed by people of all ages and healthy and non-healthy situations, our concern level is at the very highest level,” says Borzelleca.  

And so far FDA has not found any evidence of adverse effects from the colors now in use at their approved levels. “Strong and robust data support the safety of many synthetic colors,” Borzelleca says.

Those hoping to prove that synthetic colors are dangerous to children have an uphill battle, not only because synthetic colors are under continuous supervision, but because the body of research proving the connection between these colors and child behavior remains inconclusive.

In Europe, after examining the South Hampton study, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) decided not to change its recommendations on food coloring, finding that the study was flawed in its conclusions.

In fact, once the study’s results were adjusted for factors such as socioeconomic status, gender, and education, they showed that 3-year-olds were actually less hyperactive after consuming the mixture, and 8 and 9-year-olds showed greater hyperactivity only at the highest dose, according to Keith Ayoob, director of the nutrition clinic at the Rose F. Kennedy Children’s Evaluation and Rehabilitation Center at Albert Einstein College of Medicine.

Also, because children participating in the study were given a mixture of artificial colors and one preservative, it is impossible to determine from the results which additives caused any change in behavior, Ayoob explains.

Despite EFSA’s rejection of the study, however, the UK’s Food Safety Authority took the precautionary measure of advising manufacturers against using the six dyes given to children in the South Hampton study, and requiring warning labels on products containing these dyes.

In addition to the controversial South Hampton study, other studies are not likely to provide more conclusive back-up for the link between colors and hyperactivity.

“There are several problems with studies on artificial coloring and hyperactivity,” says Ayoob. These problems include bias from parents rating their children’s behavior, the lack of a sufficient wash-out period for dyes to leave children’s systems before the experiment begins, and studies that test only hyperactive or non-hyperactive children.

And, controversial research aside, food scientists and manufacturers will also be reluctant to give up dyes, because the colors make food appealing to consumers, Ayoob says.

Making food recognizable and attractive isn’t only important for selling junk foods like candy, flavored chips and soda. Synthetic colors are also used to dye more healthy foods such as oranges, cheese, soup and margarine.

Why not use natural colors, which have been substituted for manmade colors in many countries in Europe, as well as by some U.S. companies? Artificial colors bind to foods more easily than natural colors, Ayoob says, and the color they provide is more uniform. Natural colors are more expensive to manufacture, which in turn makes the product pricier.

Ayoob, who has worked with hyperactive children for almost 30 years, sees poor diet as a much bigger health threat than food coloring. “If a child has a bad diet that happens to also contain coloring, and you take the coloring out, the child could have an uncolored bad diet,” he says.

“I’d rather look at balancing the child’s diet and getting more of what the child usually tends to need. If I put my effort toward that, I don’t even have to worry about artificial coloring,” he says, “because they’re not going to be eating as much [of it].”

  • CSPI is amusing us with another of their clown circuses. ‘Center for Science in the Public Interest’ respects neither science nor the public interest. CSPI is the food taliban.
    “Those hoping to prove that synthetic colors are dangerous to children have an uphill battle, not only because synthetic colors are under continuous supervision, but because the body of research proving the connection between these colors and child behavior remains inconclusive.”
    Just another frivolous noisy Luddite campaign tilting at windmills. This sort of bizarre nonsense keeps lavish donations flowing into CSPI from people with more money than brains, apparently.
    Besides, any loopy scientifically illiterate CSPI minion knows that the food dye ‘brilliant blue'(Blue #1) makes little boys brilliant and the dye ‘fast green'(Green #3) makes little girls fast.

  • MacGruff

    I do agree that there is a lot of voodoo science out there. I think we should practice moderation in what we add to our food. Certainly, there is no proof that MSG, dyes or added sugar cause brain damage (etc.), there also is no proof that it does not. Why add things that have no benifit other than making pretty colors? Educated consumers should register thier concerns with thier checkbooks. Profit is what motivates producers.

  • dangermaus

    With highly-processed foods, not only is there the question of whether those additives are harmful or not, there’s the likelihood that it’s devoid of anything nutritious other than the big macro-nutrients (carbs, fats, protein) and probably has way too much salt.
    The more processed the food, the more artificial color and flavor that needs to be added to make it look and taste like it actually is food.

  • Rob

    When did margarine become a “more healthy food”?

  • Bek

    I find this very interesting. Food additives, like dyes, may be “generally regarded as safe” but the fact of the matter is that there are many variables involved.
    People with G6PD Deficiency are supposed to avoid Blue #1 because it triggers hemolysis/hemolytic anemia. It may seem like a no-brainer for someone to know that they have G6PD Deficiency, but testing of newborns is only mandated in 2 states in the US. I was diagnosed at 35, and my son was 7. We removed all potential triggers (various additives and all legumes and legume derivatives) and my son has had a huge improvement in his ADHD symptoms (he still has them, but they aren’t as disabling) and his ability to process information and communicate effectively has improved.
    I’m not saying that such a dietary restriction would positively impact ALL children, but I think it’s important to remember, when these questions are asked and tested, that one size fits all isn’t always a true concept, though one size fits most may be. I have been given medications, by physicians, over the years, that are fairly common and non-harmful for most people, because they rigidly follow some guidelines, despite medical history. I have lived through the impact of those poorly made decisions because the possibility of a reaction is all too often swept under the rug. I would prefer the benefit of the doubt be given, and the question examined. I just can’t see jumping to any conclusions based on who is presenting the question, but I would rather hear the evidence that is creating and feeding the question so I can decide for myself if it is something to be concerned about or something that I can just drop into my personal recycling bin. I think that especially now, people are wary of the fear-mongering recently and widely spread by CSPI, but at the same time, I do think that this is something that should be examined, not because CSPI has suggested it but because it does make good sense to question something that has triggered plenty of parental anecdotal evidence. (aside from the proven and tested experience that people with G6PD deficiency have with Blue #1, as a Mom, I thought “red dye” was in the medication or snack or punch without any potential for bad… Now I know that if my kid has Red #40 that he, and the world, should don helmets, wrap everything in bubblewrap, and duck and cover until it is out of his system.)

  • Operababe5

    I know for a fact that food dyes CAN cause neurological problems. Why should this be surprisng? FD&C artificial food coloring dyes are petroleum based. It seems rather obvious to anyone with even a basic understanding of chemistry and human biology that eating petroleum based dyes would not be healthful.
    I know for a fact that food dyes can cause serious neurological problems because I have a reaction to FD&C Yellow #5, aka Tartrazine. I observed the connection after years of experiencing a mysterious phenomenon. I would suddenly become suicidal, for no reason, not related to any change in my circumstances or health, and exactly two hours later, that ideation would simply disappear and I would be myself again. It wasn’t until I was studying food and chemical allergies that I discovered that many parents have observed strange behaviors and emotional states as well as learning problems in their children following ingestion of artificial food dyes. I tracked backwards from the next several episodes in my own experience, and was able to identify Yellow No. 5 as the culprit. I avoid all commercially prepared foods, sticking to natural foods either prepared in a restaurant where the cook is a true chef, someone who loves real food and would never consider using any food additives or else I cook at home or eat at friends’ homes where food is an art form.
    I have observed similar problems in children who attended my music classes. I could easily identify the children who were having bad reactions to some food additive or another. I would talk with the parents, turn them on to the Feingold Association, and get rave reviews from the parents several months later when their difficult child became sweet, calm and began doing well in school and in social relationships.
    Unless you have seen the change first hand, you may not believe it. Check out the Feingold Association’s website, and take the time to talk to some of the parents who’ve put their children on an additive-free diet. The change can be dramatic, and life-altering.
    Who cares whether you skeptics believe this or not. We who have lived through it, know it to be true. Help yourself to artificial dyes, feed ’em to your kids. Your kids may pay the price for your unwillingness to carefully observe and to experiment. It requires experimentation. I happen to be a scientist, so it comes naturally to me, I’ve been experimenting all my life. It’s easy to prove something by running numerous experiments. I find it funny that some of you have such a hard time accepting that petroleum based dyes might affect the human body in negative ways. Silly you!

  • ‘Food coloring makes my kid act all goofy!’ [no, actually it’s probably hereditary]
    ‘Food is poison!’ [no, actually food is…well, food]
    ‘Step on a crack, break your mother’s back!’ [OK, whatever]
    When, as grown-ups did we begin taking any of this silly nonsense seriously?

  • Jeezus

    FDA, researchers, scientists..
    here’s a clue..
    It’s called..

  • afscp91

    Food Dyes do cause hyperactivity.  Our daughter was diagnosed with HA.  We’ve seen a substantial difference in behavior by removing red dye 40 and yellow #5 and other foods after speaking with a nutritionist.

    And it’s not ‘just sugar’ because she’s still consuming chocolate and other sweets.   We’ve been buying the brand ‘Unreal Candy’ at CVS.  They have candy equivilant to M&Ms and other mainstream candies but absent of the food dye colorings. 

    When it comes to food dyes — what the FDA and manufacturers are not understanding is that while each individual manufacturer may be using the legal, minimum amount of dye in their product based on FDA requirements, it’s the cumulative intake of the child you have to concern yourself with. 

    If your child eats 10 things in a given day (and it’s very easy to do because so many products contain it) then that child has far exceeded what the FDA deems to be an acceptable, minimal amount on intake on 1-day.  Consider the cumulative affect of that over 1-year, 2-years, etc.