For decades, scientists have explored the idea that the artificial coloring found in food dyes is a significant contributor to ADHD in children. The claim was long considered controversial to a lack of quality evidence; the studies that have been conducted have had mixed results.
However, there is some new research does suggest that some food dyes could be related to ADHD for some — but not all — kids with ADHD. The European Union has even included a warning label for all foods containing artificial food dyes since 2008.
In this article, I’ll review what exactly the research says about food dye and ADHD. I’ll also talk about what you can do if you think that artificial coloring is contributing to your child’s ADHD symptoms.
Can Food Dye Cause Hyperactivity?
The research that’s been conducted on food dye and hyperactivity has had mixed results, but more and more research is supporting this claim.
In 2011, the United States Federal Drug Administration (FDA) conducted a panel on the effects of artificial food coloring on child behavior. Their recommendation was to not ban artificial food colorings or to include warning labels. This decision was controversial, and some researchers have since found flaws in the FDA’s process.
Despite the FDA’s ruling, other research studies have found that food coloring and additives, like red #40, can contribute to behavioral problems and hyperactivity in children even if they don’t have ADHD.
One UK study (the Southhampton study), conducted by the Food Standards Agency, found that both kids with and without ADHD experienced increased hyperactivity after drinking beverages with added artificial food dyes. The group of 8- and 9-year-olds was more negatively affected by these additives than the group of 3-year-olds.
Partly due to this study, the European Union now includes a warning label for all foods containing added food dyes, alerting parents that these chemicals may induce hyperactivity in their kids.
In addition, a 2012 meta-analysis examining the results of several different clinical trials determined that “Although the evidence is too weak to justify action recommendations absent a strong precautionary stance, it is too substantial to dismiss.” In other words, we can’t yet say for sure what the role of food coloring is in ADHD — but the research suggests that it does play a role, and it may be wise for parents to be cautious.
A newer report published in 2021 has provided further evidence. The study, conducted by the California Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA), examined 2 years of evidence on the safety and behavioral effects of food dyes that are currently permitted by the FDA.
The California report concluded that these food dyes are, indeed, linked with “adverse neurobehavioral outcomes” in some children. It also found that the studies that the FDA used to make their ruling were outdated — up to 70 years old at the time of their ruling.
Does this mean that food dyes cause ADHD? No. ADHD doesn’t have a single cause, and many factors — including genetics, in-utero exposure to drugs and alcohol, and environmental stressors — can contribute to it. Food dyes have been linked to increased hyperactivity, but we can’t conclude that it’s a direct cause of it.
Experts say that some kids could be right on the threshold of ADHD (or between mild/moderate and severe ADHD). For these kids, food dyes could play a significant factor in pushing them over the edge.
What Has Food Dye In It?
After reading these reports, it’s natural for parents to worry about what, exactly, is in the foods that their children are eating.
The foods and beverages that contain food dye differ based on where you live. Since the inclusion of the warning label in the European Union (in 2008), most foods there use natural coloring instead of artificial coloring.
Things are changing for the better in the U.S., but there are still many foods, including ones marketed for children, that contain food dye.
Some examples of common foods and beverages that may contain artificial food coloring are:
- Soft drinks
- Artificial juices
- Breakfast cereals
- Flavored or sweetened yogurt
- Baked goods
- Gelatin desserts
- Ice cream
- Chewing gum
- Canned peas
- Processed or canned vegetables
- Some fish and meats
- Some medicines
- Some sausage casings
Not every brand of these types of products includes food dyes, so it’s important to check every label.
What’s in food dye?
There are several kinds of artificial food coloring that are approved to be safe by the FDA. They include the following:
- Red 40, 3, and 2
- Blue 1 and 2
- Yellow 5 and 6
- Green 3
- Orange B
Red 40, Yellow 5, and Yellow 6 make up about 90% of the artificial food coloring that’s used in the United States today.
Some foods also contain FD&C Lakes, which are a type of non-water-soluble food coloring that is created by combining a food dye with another substance. Lakes are typically used in foods and other products that are made of fat or oil.
Food and beverage manufacturers usually use these additives to make their food look “better.” For example, a company selling salmon may use red food dye to make the fish look pinker and more “fresh.” Colorful sweets can also be more appealing to children.
Can Sugar Impact ADHD Symptoms?
You may have noticed that many of the foods that contain food dyes, listed above, are sugary, sweet foods. If you’ve noticed that your child’s hyperactivity appears to get worse after they’ve consumed a food or beverage with food dye in it, it could be the sugar — and not the dye — that’s making an impact.
So does artificial food coloring cause ADHD? No. But there is research that suggests that it can have an impact and increase hyperactivity both for kids with ADHD and those without it. If you think that food dye could be having a negative impact on your child, you can take a closer look at nutrition labels to try an elimination diet. Cut out certain food dyes and observe whether it makes a difference.
However, if you don’t notice an effect, then you may not need to worry. The FDA has determined that food colorings are safe to consume in the quantities allowed.