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FDA Advisory Hearings: Food Dyes & ADHD

by The Kid's Doctor Staff

For years, some parents of children with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) have believed there is a connection between artificial dyes in food, and their child’s behavior.  Now, the Food and Drug Administration is beginning to take a more serious look at the link between the two. Although the FDA says there is insufficient evidence to support a connection between side effects of the dyes and ADHD, they may be more open to the idea that more research is needed.

An FDA advisory committee has been hearing testimony on food dyes and how they may cause some children to exhibit hyperactivity behavior. But the main questions the committee seems to want answered are: Is there enough evidence to make a solid connection between the dyes and hyperactivity? And, if it appears there is, should the FDA strengthen its regulations on these dyes?  So far the committee seems to be saying “Not just yet.”

There are 8 dyes currently in use in the United States; Citrus Red 2, Red 3, Red 40, Blue 1&2, Green 3and Yellow 5&6. Experts who have testified before the committee hearings have said European companies are dropping the dyes and substituting natural colorings for them. The United States still allows artificial dyes – not for the taste, but for their pleasing appearance.

Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science and the Public Interest – a watchdog group on nutrition and food safety – asks,  “Why are these dyes in these foods anyway?”  His group and other critics believe artificial food colorings should be banned completely. “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 food dye controversy has been around for quite some time. In 1975 Dr. Benjamin Feingold’s book, “Why Your Child Is Hyperactive” connected food dyes and additives with hyperactivity in children. The Feingold Diet developed around these observations, and Feingold suggested that by removing these additives from a child’s diet, parents would see a decline in hyperactivity behaviors. The book became a favorite of proponents who want food additives removed, but reviews of the data found that the correlation between food dyes and hyperactivity was not consistent.

More recent studies conducted in 2007 and 2010 at the University of Southampton in the United Kingdom, have been able to show a connection between artificial dyes – along with sodium benzoate (a salt used as a preservative) – and increased ADHD symptoms in some children, even ones who had not been diagnosed as hyperactive.

During the committee hearings, Dr. Jim Stevenson, the lead author of the studies testified; “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.”

Parents from all over the U.S. also shared stories about their children during the committee hearings. Many talked about how they noticed a remarkable difference in their child’s behavior after they removed foods containing dyes from their diet.

“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,, to parents to warn them about dye allergies.

After lengthy discussions the committee decided that there is insufficient evidence to support the connection between artificial food colorings in food, and children with ADHD. Jason August with the FDA’s Office of Food Additive Safety said “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,”

At the end of the hearings the committee asked for more research and delayed any action on artificial dyes.

As an advisory committee, they only make recommendations to the FDA, but the agency usually follows those recommendations.

If you notice that certain foods seem to cause hyperactivity in your child, try eliminating those foods and see if it makes a difference. Experts recommend keeping a journal of your observations to refer to. It’s also important to not be too restrictive with your child’s diet. You want to avoid nutritional deficiencies. A dieticians or your pediatrician can help you develop a healthy eating plan for your children.

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