Artificial Food Colors & ADHD

Artificial Food Colors & ADHD
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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.

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Below is an approximation of this video’s audio content. To see any graphs, charts, graphics, images, and quotes to which Dr. Greger may be referring, watch the above video.

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. Others, 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.” Heaven forbid! According to the FDA: “Color additives are now recognized as an important part of practically all processed foods we eat.”

Because we are eating a lot more processed foods, we’re now getting five 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 names 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 & Cheese. It has Yellow #5. Do you think people would be as likely to buy this product if, instead of “Yellow #5,” it said this, instead, on the label? 

This list of approved colors used to be longer, but different dyes keep 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, published 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, okay, 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, look, “may have an adverse effect on activity and attention in children.” So, many international food companies have taken them out of their products in Europe, but they continue to use them in the same products here in the U.S., “where similar regulations are not currently in place.” Why not?

Well, the FDA put together a committee that looked at that same landmark study, and conceded that the food additives may have resulted in changes in behavior. But, “the type of treatment effects reported in this 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 overactivity 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 the normal range doesn’t mean it’s okay to expose kids to it. And, in fact, now looking back, the lead in leaded gas may have been causing brain cancer, and even urban violence. The aggravated assault rate in cities around the U.S. seemed to follow the lead levels in the air pretty closely.

Anyway, the CSPI 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 children’s brain—advising parents to test artificial colors by purchasing little bottles of food dye at the grocery store. Then, have your child do 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 at three hours. Also, see if they get irritable later, have problems sleeping. Then, if that’s okay, you try even more, to see if that will mess up their mind.

If I may offer an alternate suggestion, maybe we shouldn’t be buying our kids processed crap in the first place.

Please consider volunteering to help out on the site.

Images thanks to gentlepurespace via flickr. Thanks to Ellen Reid and Shane Barrett for their Keynote help.

Below is an approximation of this video’s audio content. To see any graphs, charts, graphics, images, and quotes to which Dr. Greger may be referring, watch the above video.

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. Others, 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.” Heaven forbid! According to the FDA: “Color additives are now recognized as an important part of practically all processed foods we eat.”

Because we are eating a lot more processed foods, we’re now getting five 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 names 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 & Cheese. It has Yellow #5. Do you think people would be as likely to buy this product if, instead of “Yellow #5,” it said this, instead, on the label? 

This list of approved colors used to be longer, but different dyes keep 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, published 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, okay, 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, look, “may have an adverse effect on activity and attention in children.” So, many international food companies have taken them out of their products in Europe, but they continue to use them in the same products here in the U.S., “where similar regulations are not currently in place.” Why not?

Well, the FDA put together a committee that looked at that same landmark study, and conceded that the food additives may have resulted in changes in behavior. But, “the type of treatment effects reported in this 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 overactivity 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 the normal range doesn’t mean it’s okay to expose kids to it. And, in fact, now looking back, the lead in leaded gas may have been causing brain cancer, and even urban violence. The aggravated assault rate in cities around the U.S. seemed to follow the lead levels in the air pretty closely.

Anyway, the CSPI 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 children’s brain—advising parents to test artificial colors by purchasing little bottles of food dye at the grocery store. Then, have your child do 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 at three hours. Also, see if they get irritable later, have problems sleeping. Then, if that’s okay, you try even more, to see if that will mess up their mind.

If I may offer an alternate suggestion, maybe we shouldn’t be buying our kids processed crap in the first place.

Please consider volunteering to help out on the site.

Images thanks to gentlepurespace via flickr. Thanks to Ellen Reid and Shane Barrett for their Keynote help.

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 my recent video on artificial flavors; see Butter-Flavored Microwave Popcorn or Breathing. Amazing what the food industry is able to get away with.

There’s 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 further context, check out my associated blog post: Food Dyes & ADHD.

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

24 responses to “Artificial Food Colors & ADHD

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  1. 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.




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    1. 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.




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      1. In Europe it is a start banning phthalates in the production, but we still import a lot from China containing phthalates! I dont care about money or production, if the manufacturer cant prove that his product is not harmful, then ban it. Then they will come up with a solution – and quickly. But of course it is utopian – money talks.




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  2. 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.




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  3. 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.




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  4. 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.




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  5. 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.




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    1. 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.




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    2. 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!




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  6. 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




    1
      1. 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.




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  7. 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!




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  8. 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.




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  9. 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.




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  10. Awesome video. I can’t believe the amount of chemicals that go into the seemingly simple additives labeled as “yellow number 5” etc. I expected to see a really long scary looking chemical name and instead saw a freaking paragraph of chemical names! I literally shouted “holy sh!t!” lol. Can’t wait to inform my kraft mac ‘n cheese loving cousin who hates chemicals and refuses to entertain the idea of going vegan.




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  11. About the colors we so love (I was guilty of this as well, but what little girl DOESN’T love pink frosting, and I’ve always been partial to blue foods lol, I mean… it’s blue!), apart from it being totally needless, you can easily color your foods naturally (with other plant foods) while adding extra nutrition. When I make homemade vegan butter, just adding a touch of nutritional yeast gives it a yellow tint and a great flavor. Then you have spices like turmeric (often used in vegan mac ‘n cheese), fruits like blueberries, etc. and even vegetables. You can make beautiful purple frosting and cakes by using the ube yam which is brilliant in color, it’s surreal. If I “needed” my mint vegan ice cream to be green, I’d add some matcha tea! YUM! Maybe even some wheat grass powder or chlorella? Not sure how good that would taste though lol, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the other flavors masked it. They also have avocado ice cream which I’ve yet to try… I imagine that is naturally green in color. Blending blueberries in vegan ice cream, smoothies, and other things gives it such a brilliant blueish purple color as well. And obviously the choices are limitless for pinks and reds.

    Oh and be careful about even some “health” foods that are colored! I recently purchased raw, organic and untreated camu camu berry powder and it has a nice mild earthy tone with perhaps a bit of pink but more pale brownish. Well I looked it up because the only other camu camu I’d ever tried was this brilliantly vibrant almost neon pink stuff which only read “camu camu powder” in the ingredients, it was not organic but non-GMO. Well, when concerned about the different color, I found out that the only reason some camu camu powders are bright pink are because they SPRAY DYE them!! Obviously some fruit powders are naturally vibrant in color like acai for example and probably goji berry powder, but it’s good to keep in mind. However organic would be safe I imagine. Yet another reason organic is your best bet for natural assurance.

    Lastly, I just had a horrifying thought… Remember superman ice cream? Who did not love this stuff? Think of all the artificial colors added to this rainbow monstrosity! As if the dairy weren’t bad enough…




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