ADHD and Hyperactivity: Does Artificial Food Coloring Affect Behavior?

Posted 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  www.KimberlyBither.com. She has been a featured writer/blogger for Livestrong.com, Mint.com, and DoleNutrition.com 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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  1. Mom of 2 boys! Report

    My 22 month old boy had been waking up at night for hours on end. He would be restless and want to sleep, but to no avail. This happened several times a week, but no real pattern emerges. I eliminated aritifical colour from his diet and now he sleeps through the night with no problem. What was he eating so often with colour, you may ask: Cheddar cheese! It has been almost a year now, and if he gets a bit of artifical colour he is up at night, his response has become more aggresive is no longer awake just quietly, but is crying and very unhappy. Glad to read some link between artifical colour and behaviour!

    Reply
  2. KimberlyBither Report

    Hello,

    Debbie, very true there is evidence, though it is still being pieced together. I am including the reference I used to write the article (it was a review of studies). Hopefully it helps.

    [Arnold, E.L., Lofthouse, N., Hurt, E. (2012). Neurotherapeutics. Artificial Food Colors and Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Symptoms: Conclusions to Dye For. Review.]

    -Kimberly

    Reply
  3. debbiemetz57 Report

    I have always known that red food coloring #40 increased the symptoms of adhd. I have argued this point endlessly with family. It caused our family members with adhd to get into trouble so I have always eliminated it! However,everyone just seemed to ignore me because it doesn’t cause adhd. They couldn’t get past this truth to understand that it made the symptoms worse. Glad to see evidence!!!!!

    Reply
  4. Ajstout Report

    For over 3 years now I have not allowed my son anything with Red dye and when something with red dye gets in yikes! So from experience here too yes it to true enough and the Red dyes are the worst ones.

    Reply
  5. Maraphil Report

    My younger son, who is diagnosed with ADHD and Asperger’s syndrome, has a severe behavioral reaction to artificial colors and chocolate. Within minutes of him eating either of those ingredients, he becomes extremely aggressive, physically and emotionally. It took us years to figure out what was triggering this behavior, as well as screaming, writhing tantrums that lasted hours and hours. We have found that changing his diet has improved his behavior remarkably! I have stopped eating artificial colors myself and note feeling much better in general. Once you get used to reading the ingredients, it’s not a big deal. Anything with a number won’t go in our mouths.

    Reply
  6. Just Another Nana Report

    On a trip to a popular sandwich spot for lunch, I let my granddaughter have my old favorite childhood drink for lunch: a red punch. Within an hour, she was uncontrollable and inconsolable, angry, screaming, crying. She has been diagnosed with ADHD and, when medications didn’t work well, we changed her diet to eliminate all food dyes and petrochemical additives. What a difference in just a month! There are even improvements in her handwriting. Incidents that would have triggered immediate reactivity in the past are now met with calm responses. She’s a different girl.

    Reply
  7. Robin Jingjit Report

    I hope this doesn’t go through twice! Both my sons have negative reactions to artificial foods. My blog is all about how changing our diets has helped our boys. My younger son stopped having seizures almost immediately after we changed our diet. My other boy (the reason we eliminated artificial foods in the first place) has better self control, responds to discipline, and manages his emotions better when he eats a diet free of artificial additives. He also has major facial swelling when he eats certain food additives.

    I would recommend it for any parent. We never could have guessed that my son’s seizure disorder could be managed with diet. No doctor ever told us that. So who knows what issues could be resolved by eating a more natural diet.

    Reply
  8. Robin Jingjit Report

    My blog is all about the effects of artificial foods on my sons, both physical and behavior. My younger boys seizures were almost completely cured by changing his diet, along with my older son’s facial swelling and behavioral reactions.

    I never could have guessed that the foods they ate would have that much of an impact on their lives- all our lives, really!

    Reply

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