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Food Dyes Linked to Hyperactivity in Children

August 27, 2012 | Amy VanHaren

xFood Dyes Linked to Hyperactivity in Children

By Margie Kelly
Communications Manager
Healthy Child Healthy World

Blue sports drinks and lollipops. Bright red candies and milkshakes. Caramel brown soda pop.

It’s hard to take your eyes off the colors of foods that surround us everywhere. And that’s by design. Whether food, automobiles, paints or clothing, color is a huge influence in every decision to make a purchase according to psychological studies. Bright reds, blues and greens are preferred by Americans, which is why we often see those colors in foods infused with artificial dyes.

Beyond their use as a way to catch your eye, what do we know about food dyes? More than 15 million pounds of dyes are added to food to make something colorful. The use of artificial dyes has gone up fivefold in the past 50 years, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest. Candies, frostings, macaroni and cheese, pickles, sodas, chips, fruit snacks and more are all colored by petroleum-based artificial dyes.

While sugar is usually identified as the culprit in hyperactive children, some studies link the consumption of food dyes to behavioral problems in kids, including hyperactivity and aggression.

Studies making the link between food dyes and hyperactivity were enough to convince the European Parliament in 2008 to impose a labeling requirement indicating when foods had been colored with food dyes. As of 2010, foods in the United Kingdom containing dyes must have a warning label informing consumers the food “may have an adverse effect on activity and attention in children.”

Many American-based companies make two different versions of their products so they can be sold in Europe as well as the United States: one with chemical food dyes sold in the U.S. and one without sold in the U.K. For example, McDonalds makes its strawberry shakes in the U.S. with Red 40; in the U.K. they use actual strawberries! Mars’ Starburst and Skittles candies sold in the U.K. are colored by natural coloring. Nestle has discontinued all food colorings in its candy line, changing the recipe for 79 products sold in Europe.

But none of those companies are making the same dye-free options available in the U.S.

Why? Nestle, for example, told The Lunch Tray blog that their products meet the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) standards for what is sold in the U.S.

The FDA is unconvinced that there are any problems with food dyes. Last March, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) rejected a petition filed by consumer advocates calling on the agency to label foods containing food dyes, as was done in Europe. The FDA panel found no proof that food dyes cause hyperactivity in children.

So parents unaware of the possible contribution of food dyes to hyperactivity or ADHD in their children are on their own. To steer clear of food dyes, consider these tips.

• Look for the USDA Organic label. Foods with that label will not have artificial food dyes but beware: a simple “organic” label may not be enough to ensure the product is free of artificial colors.
• Read labels. Get to know the names of artificial dyes (like Blue #1) so you can avoid them in packaged food.
• Watch medicines. Cough syrup and allergy medications may be colored with food dyes. Look for dye-free versions.
• Shop with confidence. Some stores like Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s, won’t sell products containing artificial dyes.

You can create a healthy diet for your family by avoiding food dyes and eating lots of fruits and vegetables, minimizing sugary foods and processed foods, and limiting yourself to healthy fats.

"Do you think your kids want certain foods because of the bright colors? Are there foods you won't let your kids eat because they contain food dyes?"

Margie KellyMargie Kelly is the Communications Manager at Healthy Child, Healthy World. She has more than two decades experience in high-profile media, marketing, and brand building for environmental health and human rights organizations.

Previously, she was the Communications Director for Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families, a coalition of organizations working to overhaul the nation’s toxic chemicals law, and SAFER, a multi-state coalition of environmental health organizations. Margie also held the position of Director of Communications for the Center for Reproductive Rights, a legal organization dedicated to advancing reproductive freedom as a fundamental human right.

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