ADHD and Hyperactivity: Does Artificial Food Coloring Affect Behavior?

October 15, 2012 by

Editor’s note: Halloween — and the Tsunami of candy that accompanies it — is almost here. It seemed fitting that this week’s guest blog post should come from nutritionist, blogger and mom Kimberly Bither, who examines the possible link between artificial food coloring and hyperactive behavior.

Does artificial food coloring negatively affect behavior in children?  Many parents are concerned about a possible connection between artificial food colorings and behavioral issues such as ADHD and hyperactivity and are beginning to think about removing artificial food colorings from their children’s diets — and wondering if it is worth it.

At this point, research shows that there may, in fact, be a connection between artificial food colorings and behavior.  Studies have shown through the use of various diets, including elimination diets, that when food colorings are removed from a child’s diet, then added back in, there is a noticeable increase in behavioral problems such as hyperactivity,  irritability, poor concentration, restlessness, and sleep disturbance upon re-introduction.  In addition, one group of studies showed 70% improvement in symptoms when artificial food colorings were eliminated from the children’s diets.  This connection has not only shown to be significant in children, but also in adults.

An important distinction however, is understanding that while research has shown artificial food colorings may cause an increase in the severity of  the symptoms associated with behavioral problems such as those mentioned above, artificial food colorings are not shown to actually cause ADHD, which is believed to be genetically-linked.  It is also worth noting that artificial food colorings have been shown to negatively affect behavior regardless of whether or not the child has been diagnosed with ADHD.  These symptoms occur in non-ADHD children, as well.

Although research is ongoing, there is enough evidence to encourage parents to start thinking about eliminating artificial food colorings from their child’s diet, especially if behavior is a concern.  Artificial food colorings are found in many different kinds of foods, some self-explanatory like candies and sugary cereals, but they may also be found in unsuspecting foods such as particular brands of cheese snacks, crackers, frozen and canned goods, foods that contain fruit (leading one to believe the color is from the fruit, when it fact it’s from the coloring), yogurt, pickles, even breads and crusts that are white or tan-colored may contain red dye colors.  Also beware that some foods claiming to be healthy may also contain artificial food colorings.

The best thing to do is read the ingredients label and if there is anything listed like “red #40, yellow #5, etc…”, avoid the food and look for an alternative.  Organic foods do not contain artificial food colorings.  There are also many non-organic brands that advertise the food contains no artificial food colorings, so look for those labels, as well.  However, be careful as certain foods will advertise no artificial flavors, but they still contain artificial colors, so double check the ingredients list.  (Some foods use natural food colorings such as annatto or turmeric.  These are not artificial and are a safe alternative.)

And while not technically science-based, though worth noting, many parents claim that after eliminating artificial food colorings from their child’s diet, they noticed great improvements in their behavior.  If you are concerned about your child’s behavior and looking to try a healthy potential solution, removing artificial food colorings may be worth considering.

Have you noticed a link between what your child eats and how he behaves? Share your story with us.

Kimberly Bither, M.S. holds a Masters Degree in Human Nutrition and eight national certifications in health and fitness.  She has worked as a fitness instructor, consultant, and adjunct professor. Currently she writes about nutrition, exercise, women’s health, and wellness promotion on her blog at She has been a featured writer/blogger for,, and and was awarded Featured Fitness Professional in American Fitness Magazine.  In her spare time she enjoys cooking, gardening and camping with her 10 year-old daughter and 7 year-old son.

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