FDA advisers want more study of food dye-ADHD link
March 31st, 2011
04:09 PM ET

FDA advisers want more study of food dye-ADHD link

A Food and Drug Administration advisory committee decided Thursday there is insufficient evidence to support a link between artificial dyes in foods and children with ADHD.  The committee will make no recommendation to ban or regulate dye additives found in food products. But the committee did stress that there seems to be a trend with artificial dyes and side effects in children and that more research is needed.

Over the past two days the committee has heard testimony on dyes and how they cause some children to show signs of hyperactivity.  The question before the committee: Is there enough evidence to connect artificial dyes and hyperactivity and, if so, should it recommend that the FDA strengthen its regulations on these ingredients?  The committee's response seems to be  "Not now."

According to the experts who testified, European companies already are dropping dyes including Blue #1, Yellow #5 and #6 and others and substituting natural colorings  for them. But the United States still allows artificial dyes, mostly for aesthetic reasons, not for taste, the experts say.

There are eight dyes now being used in the United States; Citrus Red 2, Red 3, Red 40, Blue 1 & 2, Green 3 and Yellow 5 & 6. They can be found in numerous food products from packaged macaroni and cheese to Easter candy.

Critics had called for either a ban or more explicit labeling. “Why are these dyes in these foods anyway?” asked Michael Jacobsen, executive director of the Center for Science and the Public Interest, a watchdog group on nutrition and food safety. “I would push for having them taken out completely. But if that can’t be done, why not warn the public and parents that these dyes could have some effects?”

The idea that dyes in food causes ADHD was first noted in "Why Your Child is Hyperactive," a book written by Dr. Benjamin Feingold in 1975. The eating style described in the book became known as the Feingold Diet. He found if you eliminated artificial food dyes and additives in American diets, cases of hyperactivity in children, later defined as ADHD, would decline. But reviews of the data found that the correlation between dyes and hyperactivity were inconsistent.

Although numerous data have been collected on food dyes and hyperactivity in kids during the past decade, critics say the design of the studies has been weak. They note many of the studies were performed on small groups– many involved no more than 25 children. They also noted that much of the observation data (how the child acted) was reported by parents and not by clinicians. And they pointed out that most of the dyes tested were combined into a dye mixture and not tested individually.

The most recent studies to bring food dyes and ADHD back to the public eye was a 2007 project conducted by researchers at the University of Southampton in the United Kingdom. It showed that artificial food dyes along with sodium benzoate (a white crystalline salt used as a food preservative) increased ADHD symptoms in both hyperactive and non-hyperactive children. That study was followed up by another paper in 2010 by the same researchers who looked at the connection between food dyes, ADHD and histamine, a chemical that’s produced in the brain when the body is having an allergic reaction.

“We found mixtures of certain artificial colors together with sodium benzoate preservative in the diet increased the average level of hyperactivity in 3 and 8/9 year old children in the general population,” Dr. Jim Stevenson, a professor at the School of Psychology at the University of Southampton, and lead author of the study, testified Wednesday.

During the hearing, parents from all over the United States shared stories about their children with the committee. Renee Shutters, from Jamestown, New York, said her 5-year-old ,Trenton, who at the time was in preschool, was an unhappy child. “He just wasn’t comfortable with himself,” said Shutters. But after talking to another parent who said her child was having behavioral issues because he was allergic to a food dye, Shutters took action. “I went through my pantry and removed everything with dyes," declared Shutters.

“Now,” Shutters says, “Trenton is fine. After two days there was a huge change. Two weeks later he felt different, much happier and six weeks later, he was a new child.”

“To give my child an artificial dye would be child abuse!” exclaimed Maureen Lamm, a doctor and mother of three from Kennesaw, Georgia, a suburb of Atlanta. “He suffers that much when he eats foods with certain dyes.” Lamm has become so involved she offers a website, www.momsabcs.com, to parents to warn them about dye allergies.

But the FDA’s evaluation of studies on color additives and ADHD found there was very little strong evidence in any of these studies that showed dyes were the primary reason for a child’s hyperactivity.

“There were other factors in most of these studies that could have been the reason or could have gone hand in hand with the dyes to create these problems in these particular children, including preservatives,”said Jason August with the FDA’s Office of Food Additive Safety.

And the International Food Information Council, which is supported primarily by broad-based food, beverage and agricultural industries, says the science isn’t there.

“Without sufficient scientific evidence that a causal link truly exists between food colors and hyperactivity in children, communications that suggest a link could have unintended consequences, including unnecessarily frightening consumers about safe ingredients that are consumed every day,” said David Schmidt, president and CEO of IFIC.

After lengthy discussion the committee made its decision based on the FDA’s evaluation of study data, as well as testimony from researchers. It was the weakness of the studies, and the lack of data, that caused the committee to ask for more research and delay action on artificial dyes.

Although the committee only makes recommendations to the FDA, the agency usually follows those recommendations.

soundoff (580 Responses)
  1. Jessica

    The premise of the argument seems backward. Instead of asking "Where is the data showing harm?", shouldn't the question be "Where is the data showing the safety?"

    March 31, 2011 at 18:29 | Report abuse | Reply
    • davidadams281

      Agreed. If there's even a possible correlation, why take the risk? Shouldn't the safety of our food sources be protected as well as anything? Then again, the powerful food corporation are an influential lobby on capitol hill.


      April 1, 2011 at 07:51 | Report abuse |
    • Conrad Shull

      That's called "proving a negative" and is not possible.

      April 1, 2011 at 09:38 | Report abuse |
    • FDAer Answers

      Color additives ARE evaluated for both their chemistry and safety in the process of "pre-market approval" before they may be listed by regulation and legally used in foods (or other FDA-regulated products). This process is 'transparent' and the information is on the FDA CFSAN Website (see http://www.fda.gov ). Teams of toxicologists and chemists contribute to these reviews. It has been this way since the 1960 Color Additive Amendments to the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetics Act.

      April 1, 2011 at 10:03 | Report abuse |
    • Weslley

      It was fun. Each colour is about 100-150 grams. I staetrd with the light colours and then just keep adding colours as you go. you get some interesting shades you cant repeat because of the colour that's left in from the last batch. sometimes you put wool in to exhaust the colour that's left over.

      November 14, 2012 at 03:52 | Report abuse |
  2. Rahsheem

    There's NO SUCH THING as ADHD, everybody's kids is just BAD...take away their video games, facebook and toys, and start whipping their you know whats..I bet they behave then!!!

    March 31, 2011 at 18:49 | Report abuse | Reply
    • PFischer

      Rahsheem, that is an incredibley ignorant comment. Its not only kids who have ADHD. It is actually both OVER diagnosed and UNDER diagnosed. To say that there is no such thing as ADHD is to ignore years of science and proof and to say that everyone's kids are simply "bad" is compouding the problem. It is exacly people like you who have, for years said that kids with ADD should just have their "you know whats" whipped and if they would just focus or try harder everything would be fine. Honestly, its like saying to someone with tuberculosis, "oh if you just try harder to run faster, you'll win that marathon".

      Please. What's bad is your grammer.

      March 31, 2011 at 20:18 | Report abuse |
    • Bret

      Bad kids and parents who don't really care. I'd say a big lack of discipline too.

      April 1, 2011 at 08:35 | Report abuse |
    • linda

      You are totally insane. Yes, ADHD is over diagnosed, but it is real. If you never knew or lived with this you would have no clue.

      April 1, 2011 at 09:03 | Report abuse |
    • Tlady

      Brenda, I'd love to see how your fabric turns out. I was just aezamd at how bright the colors were even compared to the snow dyeing. I just got it back from Quilting Arts so I've not done anything with it yet. It's so pretty I hate to cut into it!!

      November 16, 2012 at 02:36 | Report abuse |
  3. Aed

    I am noticing more now that food coloring are vegetable and fruit derived. Beets, carrots, spinach...... No reason to be shoving in artificial dyes into foods. We can still have aesthetically pleasing foods and keep it natural.

    March 31, 2011 at 19:35 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. 2bits

    One man's poison is another's nectar–I hear from several sources that ADHD has many benefits.

    March 31, 2011 at 20:56 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Dawn Papple

      Explain the benefits of throwing desks at other children after being given a strawberry yogurt at school by a teacher who hadn't read my son's doctor's note?

      March 31, 2011 at 23:14 | Report abuse |
    • linda

      ADHD people are usually very creative and "fun" and actually can hyper-focus on things they enjoy. Some people are way off the charts and some are not – isome need meds and some done't. It's a matter of compensating and learning to live with this – but young kids have a hard time and to young to understand it all.

      April 1, 2011 at 09:07 | Report abuse |
  5. AGuest9

    I don't know... None of my kids are hyperactive. My one son very energetic, but knows that he needs to sit his butt in a chair when told and listen in school. As far as when I was a kid, I ate as much crap as I could get away with, and am neither overweight, nor diabetic. Although my children eat better than I did, they are still not expressly forbidden from eating candy, or foods with dyes in them. Can't blame everything outright on one thing.

    March 31, 2011 at 22:47 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. Noelle

    My son turns into an absolute crazed person when he eats dye. I mean... beyond weird. He can't sit upright.. he turns into a crying little terror.. whining and crying and he is 7. It's been that way since he was 1 and he first tried dye. It's like a switch turns on. I firmly believe there is a huge correlation and I don't need any study proving to me why it's not good for you. It's night and day for us. And I try to avoid it but it is literally in everything. Disturbing. They could use him for a study.

    March 31, 2011 at 22:54 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Dawn Papple

      My step son is the same. Food dye turns my five year old into a wild animal. And it makes my nine year old boy cry over almost nothing.

      It's not sugar either... because meats have red dye in them and not sugar. And it happens with meats too.

      March 31, 2011 at 23:12 | Report abuse |
  7. GK

    What is wrong with our medical people. I remember back in the 1950's when they pulled RED no 4 food coloring because
    it made kids hyper and went to RED no10 because that wasn't quite as bad. Have they learned nothing in the last 60 years?

    March 31, 2011 at 23:03 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. Dawn Papple

    They strong armed Hyland's into pulling their teething tablets when there was absolutely no evidence of any negative side effects. In the case of food dyes they just say there's not enough evidence?!? Or It's there, but these particular children have genetic issues ANYWAY?!?!


    Money hungry, hypocrites.


    March 31, 2011 at 23:09 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Natural mom

      Agreed, it all comes down money. Very sad. At least I can protect my family by keeping these chemicals out of our food, but I think everyone deserves less chemicals, it's not only linked to ADHD, studies link dyes to bipolar disorder, depression, headaches, irritibility, reproductive problems and even cancer. Why do people think it's so benign to eat petroleum-derived foods? Why is it so hard to see there's a real connection between what we put into our bodies and our health? I'm not surprised in the least aboutvthe panels decision, the FDA is a corrupt place, I'm just very sad this is the way our country works. Money comes first.

      April 1, 2011 at 07:37 | Report abuse |
  9. ohiobenz

    "International Food Information Council, which is supported primarily by broad-based food, beverage and agricultural industries"
    Right there is your answer as to WHY they want more time, more studies, claim there isnt a problem...
    They know who butters their bread...
    So why do we even have a committee funded by the people they are supposed to watch????

    March 31, 2011 at 23:34 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. Claire

    Come on, everyone knows the FDA has been bought off by big business. Why are people still listening to them?

    April 1, 2011 at 02:11 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. Dr. DH

    Dawn it should be noted that meats naturally possess sugar and do not natural possess dyes however fuits and vegetables are often part of the base mix of dyes. I think often times we blame things very ignorantly and really need to evaluate other environmental reasons, excess tv, lack of physical exercise, etc. I hope that we really make an effort on reeducating ourselves about food and agriculture through the right means(not uncredible internet sources). You will see a lot of the same crazy arguments about nitrates and nitrites and those come naturally in products like celery, beets, cherries and other root or soil based vegetables in very high levels. However if you chose to utilize a dye free diet meat and proteins are necessary in moderation for healthy growth. Best of luck to you.
    "Dawn Papple

    My step son is the same. Food dye turns my five year old into a wild animal. And it makes my nine year old boy cry over almost nothing.

    It's not sugar either... because meats have red dye in them and not sugar. And it happens with meats too."

    April 1, 2011 at 08:28 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. Brett

    First off, my bias is that there should be no dyes in foods at all. Yes, people are attracted to bright vibrant colors, I get it, and that's why there are fruits and vegetables. If you need your color fix, go to a farmers market. However, I am also a pediatrician and a father. I cant even begin to list all the items parents think are harming their children, causing ADHD...etc. I applaud any healthy way for a parent to encourage a more natural diet in their child, it would be better for us all, but if you want to make giant policy changes about anything, be it food dye, corn syrup, nitrites...etc, you need to have science to back it up. Otherwise you are constantly at the whims of whatever new health fad is sweeping the country.

    April 1, 2011 at 09:06 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. Brett

    And, for the record, I have diagnosed kids with ADHD. Their behavior is real, no doubt, and I have helped children find a confidence at school that without the meds they never would have had. I am proud of that. However there have certainly been times as the children shredded my office, while the parents did nothing that I have been quite sure that some structure and discipline, and turning off the %^&$ electronics, would have "cured" this in a much more desirable manner. But, do I punish the child (ie allow them to fail second grade for the 2nd time, instead of help them calm down) for having parents that won't set boundaries. It is a moral gray area that is no fun to deal with on a daily basis.

    April 1, 2011 at 09:13 | Report abuse | Reply
  14. Julie

    My daughter, who has Epilepsy, always has a seizure if she eats anything with Red 40 dye in it – every time. I also have had two dogs that had seizures if I fed them dog food with red 40 in it. It may not be the cause of the seizures but it definitely can bring them on.

    April 1, 2011 at 09:46 | Report abuse | Reply
  15. Palash

    I think the world needs to look at this video and knowledge and the choice of livin healthfully versus looking for remedies


    April 1, 2011 at 12:42 | Report abuse | Reply
  16. SDY

    Given that the British study has an adequate trial design and strongly suggests an effect, it seems like there's something going on. The problem is the "shotgun" nature of it, where it could be only one of the colors tested while all of the others are fine. The safety testing that FDA does very likely wouldn't catch subtle and subjective psychological effects like ADHD, it's looking for things like liver damage and cancer.

    Nothing can ever be proven absolutely safe, and if these colors have an effect it's not a major one, so panic and histrionics like "child abuse" are just uncalled for. Packaged food declares it on the label, so don't buy it if you don't want it.

    Feeding tuna to children is another story.

    April 1, 2011 at 12:46 | Report abuse | Reply
  17. shelou

    "But the United States still allows artificial dyes, mostly for aesthetic reasons, not for taste, the experts say". Seriously, you mean any petroleum-based dye that the "for profit" industry wants to dump into our food for their aesthetic reasons is approved, if the current science cannot prove it causes harm? So what, if it doesn't cause harm!. Why should anyone be able to treat our children's digestive/immune systems like a garbage disposal to profit the petroleum-based dye industry. So, the Koch lobbyists pushing petroleum and petroleum-based dyes and "no regulations", don't have to ask permission from consumers to use our digestive systems as garbage disposals for junk chemicals that drive up food costs for food "make up" ...or any other thing that makes a profit challenging our digestive systems/immune systems to "deal with it" because the FDA is a rubber stamp for any food industry product wishing to make a fast buck for "non food" items? The FDA has drunk the petroleum-based dye in the Koolaid and has forgotten that they serve us. Or, do they?

    April 1, 2011 at 16:24 | Report abuse | Reply
  18. ed Bailey

    Is your government watchdog agency's sleeping with Dow chemical and any rich corporate jerk that will fork up a little payola. If you said no then you get the dunce hat to wear for the rest of your SHORT life. There isn't ONE government agency that is on the side of truth and any form of human compassion FOR YOU. Our government is a liar and a fraud when it comes to their job!

    April 2, 2011 at 04:21 | Report abuse | Reply
  19. REK

    The FDA and the USDA know absolutely nothing about health. WAKE UP AMERICA. You need to start taking your health into your own hands.

    April 6, 2011 at 08:02 | Report abuse | Reply
  20. Chaz

    Yes – hopefully we can start to find root causes. An interesting study came out a while back indicating that there might be a Genetic link – http://www.adhdiguide.com/adhdiguide/Blog/4596/ADHD_Genetic_Link__New_Research.aspx

    April 30, 2011 at 18:03 | Report abuse | Reply
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