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Artificial Food Colors and ADHD

In response to definitive evidence showing artificial colors may increase inattentiveness, impulsivity, and hyperactivity among young children, a call has been made by consumer groups to ban food dyes.

August 30, 2013 |
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Acknowledgements

Images thanks to gentlepurespace via Flickr and thanks to Ellen Reid and Shane Barrett for their keynote help.

Transcript

It is estimated that there are currently thousands of additives in our food supply. Some are good—like supplementing foods with vitamin B12, for example; other additives you have to weigh the risks and benefits—like the nitrites in processed meats, yes, they may increase your risk of cancer but, as preservatives, they decrease your risk of dying from botulism. Then there are additives used for purely cosmetic purposes, like food dyes, used to provide color to colorless and "fun" foods. According to the FDA, "Without color additives, colas wouldn’t be brown, margarine wouldn’t be yellow and mint ice cream wouldn’t be green.” God forbid! Color additives are now recognized as an important part of practically all processed foods we eat.

Because we're eating a lot more processed foods, we're now getting 5 times more food dyes in our daily diet than we were 50 years ago. 15 million pounds of food dyes are used every year in foods, drugs, and cosmetics in the United States.

I always wondered why they called them like Blue #1 instead of their actual chemical name in the list of ingredients. Then, after reading this report from the Center for Science in the Public Interest, I realized why. Here's a box of Kraft mac and cheese. It has Yellow #5. Do you think people would be as likely to buy this product if instead of Yellow #5 it listed Trisodium 1-(4-sulfonatophenyl)-4-(4-sulfonatophenylazo)-5-pyrazolone-3-carboxylate) on the label?

This list used to be longer, but different dyes kept getting banned, including Violet #1, "which, ironically, was the color used in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s meat inspection stamp,” so they may have been actually further cancer-ing up the meat.

Years ago I featured this landmark study, a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled food challenge in perhaps the most prestigious medical journal in the world, showing artificial colors increased inattentiveness, impulsivity, and hyperactivity among young children. So what happened? Well, the British government said, “OK, there's no health benefits to these dyes; only health risks, so it's a no-brainer"—and they mandated that food manufacturers remove most of the artificial food colors from their products. In fact the whole European Union said, “fine, you want to continue using these dyes, then you have to put a warning label stating: ‘may have an adverse effect on activity and attention in children.’” Many international food companies have taken them out of their products in Europe, but continue to use them in the same products here in the U.S., where similar regulations are not currently in place. Why not?

The FDA put together a committee that looked at the landmark study and conceded that the food additives may have resulted in changes in behavior, but the "type of treatment effects reported in the study, even though the investigators referred to increases in levels of ‘hyperactivity,’ were not the disruptive excessive hyperactivity behaviors of ADHD but more likely the type of over-activity exhibited occasionally by the general population of preschool and school age children," to which a distinguished toxicologist responded—look, low level lead exposure may only shave off a few IQ points off of kids, but just because they'd still fall within a normal range, doesn't mean it's OK to expose kids to it. And. in fact, looking back now, the lead in leaded gas may have been causing brain cancer and possibly even urban violence: the aggravated assault rate in cities around the U.S. seemed to follow the lead levels in the air pretty closely.

Anyways, the Center for Science in the Public Interest continues to call on the FDA to ban food dyes and for food companies to voluntarily stop using them. Good luck with that. In the meanwhile, some researchers recently suggested a way to see which food colors may be damaging your child's brain, advising parents to test artificial colors by purchasing little bottles of food dyes at the grocery store. Then have their kid do to some homework or something and then have them chug down an artificial color and see if it affects their handwriting/reading/math at 30 minutes, then at 90 minutes and then 3 hours. Also see if they get irritable later, have problems sleeping, and so on. If that's OK, they say you should try even more to see if that will mess with their mind. Hmm… If I may offer alternate suggestion, maybe we shouldn't buy our kids processed crap in the first place.

To see any graphs, charts, graphics, images, and quotes to which Dr. Greger may be referring, watch the above video. This is just an approximation of the audio contributed by Ariel Levitsky.

To help out on the site please email volunteer@nutritionfacts.org.

Dr. Michael Greger

Doctor's Note

I originally covered the landmark Lancet study in Are Artificial Colors Bad for You? There's even sometimes Artificial Coloring in Fish.

This whole saga reminds me of the artificial flavor video I did the other day, Butter-Flavored Microwave Popcorn or Breathing. Amazing what the food industry is able to get away with.

There is a campaign to get Kraft to remove yellow #5 from their mac & cheese, but even if the stuff didn't glow in the dark, it's still just a blob of sodium (750 mg), saturated fat (4.5 g), and trans fat (2.8 g). The food movement might better spend its time encouraging healthier fare altogether.

How can we get our kids to eat less processed junk? I review some practical tips in my next two videos, Tricks to Get Kids to Eat Healthier at School and Tricks to Get Kids to Eat Healthier at Home.

For more context, check out my associated blog post: Food Dyes and ADHD.

If you haven't yet, you can subscribe to my videos for free by clicking here.

  • Alex

    Maybe we shouldn’t be buying our children processed crap in the first place!!!

  • Catherine J Frompovich

    Congratulations, Dr. Greger! This article is so on point, I cannot express how much, and how much really should be taken seriously not only by parents but by the U.S. FDA. The book Our Chemical Lives And The Hijacking Of Our DNA, A Probe Into What’s Probably Making Us Sick (on Amazon.com) discusses in detail what chemicals are capable of doing, where they are found, which consumers unfortunately don’t realize, and how they affect human health.
    Food dyes contain man-made toxic chemicals–and lots of them, too!, as you so correctly point out in the FDA-approved Yellow 5 example. Not only should food coloring chemicals be suspect for affecting brain function — and banned, I feel — but all neurotoxic man-made chemicals–regardless–that are so generously supplied in food, water, and the environment.
    I wish medicine would take seriously the problems man-made petro-chemicals, in most cases, contribute to the detrimental health and well being of everyone from prenatal status to senior citizen.
    Thank you for the work you do; it is a light unto accurate science and biochemistry.

    • http://www.DonForresterMD.com/ Don Forrester MD

      Of course not all chemicals are a problem but the range of manufactured chemicals in the US environment is really staggering. At least in Europe they have taken some positive steps like banning some chemicals such as cadmium and phthalates. The book, Exposed, goes through the issues. Unfortunately given our political structure in this country I believe we will continue to dance around the issue. The best path for us at this point is to avoid animal products as they are the leading source of persistent organic pollutants in the standard american diet. Avoid GMO’s which can be difficult. Buy organic plants when able and you can afford. Of course in the long run as we run out of oil and natural gas this all becomes academic… if interested in pursuing this line of argument I recommend, Richard Heinberg’s book, The End of Growth, or The Post Carbon Reader.

  • Darryl

    The artifical food colors being phased out in Europe include E102 (FD&C Yellow 5), E104, E110 (FD&C Yellow 6), E122 (FD&C Red 3), E124, and E129 (FD&C Red 40).

    The natural dyes European food processors are replacing synthetics with may do more than reduce ADHD risk, quite a few may have their own health benefits. Yellow curcumin (E100) from turmeric, yellow lutein (E161b) from kale, spinach etc., red/purple betanin (E161) from beets, and red/purple/blue anthocyanins (E163) from berries and red cabbage are currently being investigated for antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, cancer chemopreventative, and anti-dementia roles.

  • Anthony G

    I could not agree more, skip all the processed junk food and be WELL. I’ve done it and at 67, I have blood pressure almost always below 120/70 and take no meds, exercise regularly and eat no sugar in any of its varius incarnations. At first it was hard to give up the meat, dairy, poultry, fish, cookies, etc but hey its so worth it. In my view YOUR HEALTH IS YOUR GREATEST WEALTH. Recomend a classic book regarding chemicals in food called “THE CHEMICAL FEAST” by The Ralph Nader Study Group on the Food and Drug Administration circa 1970. This book is an excellent intro into the political forces paid for by the large food and chemical manufactuers that have corrupted the FDA WAY BACK in the 1950′s. And it continues to this day. Anthony G. Environmental Scientist.

  • Plantstrongdoc M.D.

    The message is clear – avoid processed crap – vegan or non-vegan. Of course artificial crap has a negative impact on your body. We have to eat what we are designed to eat – fruit, vegetables, grains, beans (and a little alcohol :-) ) Some years ago I was horrified to learn that a common food dye, was also used in shoe polish! We have to protect our children and just say NO, when they want some crappy highly processed food, that dont even look like food anymore….. Of course you say NO if your children want to drink some gazoline, because it is not healthy, but if they want to eat or drink some crap, which will make them fat and sick in the future, we dont have the guts to say NO – thats what we have to change – because government in the US and Europe will not help us. This change will only come from the grassroots – us! Rember what Popeye used to eat to become muscular – spinach! What are Ninja Turtles eating – Pizza Pepperoni! Put a ban on commercials (candy, sugarloaded breakfast, fastfood) for children on TV. That could be a start.

  • Ilana

    I will say that although no one should be eating cake every day, it’s very difficult to make red velvet cake without dye. None of the ”natural” dyes I’ve found has given good color, but maybe the high quality ones just aren’t available state side.

    • Victor Pena

      Try using cochineal (carmine dye) made from crushed bugs. The Aztecs and Mayans used it to create beautiful reds and I drank it everyday in Europe for years as an ingredient of a grapefruit drink.

      • Ilana

        Ewwwww. Gross. Not vegan. Thanks though.

    • Dan Lundeen

      Well of course cake is fraught with all the baddies not recommended on this site – refined carbs, refined oils, and usually eggs or dairy – but have you tried beets? They are a natural dye that is quite good for you -http://nutritionfacts.org/video/pretty-in-pee-nk/ – and they will make the cake very moist!

  • James M

    Hello Dr. Greger,

    This is a gem of a website and thank you so much for your beneficial work. I am wondering if there exists a concise general summary of all of your dietary recommendations for healthy adults who wish to remain healthy for as long as possible. This would be very welcome as there is so much excellent information on the website that is all spread out.

    Thank you,

    James M

    • Thea

      James: I don’t know that this is everything that Dr. Greger recommends, (for example, it doesn’t mention flax seeds, which I believe are high on Dr. Greger’s recommendations. However, here is a blog post that is a high-level summary of Dr. Greger’s Optimum Nutrition Recommendations:

      http://nutritionfacts.org/2011/09/12/dr-gregers-2011-optimum-nutrition-recommendations/

      Hope that helps.

      • James M

        Thank you Thea, that’s just what I was looking for!

        Dr. Greger, do you know of any studies concerning germinated brown rice vs regular brown rice? Thank you.

  • alabamra

    The links above for tricks to get kids to eat healthier are expired. I’d love to see that info if it still exists.

  • Sosonolve

    Buy pure natural ingredients and make foods yourself! Mac & cheese = whole wheat pasta, shredded cheese (maybe whole wheat flour) & milk. Add salt & pepper to taste. That’s it!

  • HemoDynamic, M.D.

    Processed food is CRAP!!!

    Colored
    Rearranged
    And
    Packaged (notice the Acronym)

    for our consumption!

  • Pat

    Thirty yrs ago I read a book Dr Finegolds diet. He called for no artificial flavors or coloring in food. I made pancakes and waffles from Bisquick. At that time they came out with the first natural peanut butter and maple syrup. It was hard cooking dinner and making foods for a child.My Dr would not put my stepdaughter on meds. If she came home from school bouncing of the walls I knew she had candy or cake from someones Birthday Party. I noticed a big difference. I really believe there is something to the food and ADHD .Back then we did not have a lot of fast food.

  • Gloria

    Great video, it’s amazing how processed our food has gotten and how acceptable this is as ‘normal’ parts of most people’s diet. As a dietitian I try to help my clients to reduce the amount of processed foods they eat and increase the amount of natural whole foods. This video highlights some of the things people don’t consider about processed foods. Thanks featuring it.