With numerous recent studies showing a strong link between synthetic food dyes and hyperactivity in children, a group of prominent doctors and researchers has called on Congress to ban the use of these chemicals in American food.
Nineteen psychiatrists, toxicologists, and pediatricians have co-signed a letter urging members of Congress to hold hearings about the adverse effects of synthetic food colorings and certain other additives on children's behavior and to pass a law prohibiting their use.
"The undersigned physicians and researchers are concerned about the effects of food ingredients, especially food dyes, on children's behavior, including children with hyperactivity and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and are troubled by federal inaction," they said.
This letter to Congress is part of a campaign by the Center for Science in the Public Interest, with the support of the nonprofit Feingold Association of the United States (www.ADHDdiet.org), to educate the public about the connection between synthetic food dyes and behavior problems and to press the U.S. government to investigate and ban these additives.
The food dyes in question (Yellow 5, Yellow 6, Red 3, Red 40, Blue 1, Blue 2, Green 3, and Orange B) are found in candy, gum, cereals, sports drinks, popsicles, gelatin, cookies, frostings, and many other processed foods targeted at children.
In their letter, the doctors and researchers stress that the link between food dyes and children's behavior has been confirmed by numerous controlled studies since the late Dr. Ben Feingold, a pediatrician and allergist, first discovered it over 30 years ago. They wrote:
"The first hints that food ingredients could impair children's behavior came in the mid-1970s, when the late Dr. Ben Feingold publicized his clinical findings. His contentions not only generated great public concern, but also spurred scientists to conduct scientific research. Many of the studies done over the years, in the U.S. and abroad, have confirmed that some children are adversely affected by foods, with food dyes being the ingredients most intensively studied."
According to these scientists, a recent meta-analysis of controlled studies concluded that "our results strongly suggest an association between ingestion of [artificial food colorings] and hyperactivity" and proposed that "society should engage in a broader discussion about whether the aesthetic and commercial rationale for the use of [artificial food colorings] is justified." (Schab 2004)
Jane Hersey, director of the nonprofit Feingold Association, has been informing the public about this issue since 1976, when she volunteered for the charity and began working with Dr. Feingold.
"Children's foods do not need to be colored with synthetic dyes, since there are plenty of natural ones available," said Hersey, a former teacher and Head Start consultant, whose own daughter's behavior was affected by food dyes and certain other additives until she was put on the Feingold Diet.
"Right now, food manufacturers are competing with each other to see who can offer children the most brightly colored foods and beverages, but if these petroleum-based dyes were banned, they would use safe natural colorings such as fruit and vegetable-based ones," she said.
In addition to the meta-analysis, the scientists cite several other studies showing a strong link between synthetic food dyes and hyperactivity. A British government-backed study of 277 toddlers concluded, "We believe that this suggests that benefit would accrue for all children if artificial food colours and benzoate preservatives were removed from their diet." (Bateman 2004)
A subsequent study of the effects of synthetic food dyes and sodium benzoate on 297 toddlers and older children, which cited the work of Dr. Feingold and was also backed by the British government, concluded: "The present findings ... lend strong support for the case that food additives exacerbate hyperactive behaviours (inattention, impulsivity, and overactivity) in children at least up to middle childhood." (McCann 2007)
The researchers added: "These findings show that adverse effects are not just seen in children with extreme hyperactivity (i.e., ADHD), but can also be seen in the general population and across the range of severities of hyperactivity."
Hersey said that she and her colleagues at the Feingold Association have long suspected this. "Parents often tell us that all of their kids improved when they cut out the dyes and other troublesome additives -- not just their hyperactive child," she said.
"The authors of this study later said that synthetic food dyes affect children's IQ as much as lead in gasoline," said Hersey. "Yet the food industry dumps huge amounts of these harmful chemicals into our children's foods."
The usage of synthetic food dyes has increased five-fold in the last 50 years, with the amount certified by the FDA rising from 12 milligrams of synthetic food coloring per person in 1955 to 59 milligrams per person in 2007.
Studies Trigger Dramatic Response
Reactions to these studies have been dramatic, both here and abroad.
The European Parliament passed legislation requiring labels on foods containing six synthetic dyes to warn that they “may have an adverse effect on activity and attention in children.” (Manufacturers have eighteen months to comply.) Britain's Food Standards Agency also called on manufacturers to voluntarily remove the dyes by the end of 2009 and advised parents to limit their children's intake of these additives if they show signs of ADHD.
In the United States, the American Academy of Pediatrics acknowledged in its journal, AAP Grand Rounds, that "a trial of a preservative-free, food coloring-free diet is a reasonable intervention" for hyperactive children. In addition, the Center for Science in the Public Interest filed a petition with the Food and Drug Administration calling on the agency to ban eight synthetic food dyes and to require warning labels on all foods containing them in the meantime.
The nineteen scientists' letter asking Congress to ban these dyes points out that some multinational companies have already cut down significantly on their use in the United Kingdom -- but not in America.
"Why do these companies think that synthetic dyes are too risky for British children to eat, but that they are 'good enough' for American children?" asks Hersey.
What Can Parents Do in the Meantime?
While the eventual banning of synthetic food dyes is an important goal, many parents of hyperactive children might not want to wait that long before eliminating these and other troublesome additives from their children's diet.
Hersey advises these parents to read ingredient labels and avoid color/number combinations, such as Yellow 5 and Red 40, since these are synthetic food dyes. In addition she suggests staying away from foods containing artificial flavorings and the preservatives BHA, BHT, and TBHQ, which have also been linked with behavior and learning problems.
But reading labels is not the only answer, because food manufacturers do not always list all of the ingredients and restaurant menus seldom do. That is why the Feingold Association conducts in-depth food research and publishes a Foodlist & Shopping Guide containing thousands of brand-name foods that are free of the unwanted additives, the Pure Facts Newsletter (which includes frequent updates), a Mail Order Guide, a Fast Food & Restaurant Guide, and other program materials.
The Feingold Association
The Feingold Association (www.ADHDdiet.org) helps families implement the Feingold Diet, which was developed by the late Dr. Ben Feingold, a pediatrician and chief of allergy at San Francisco's Kaiser Permanente Medical Center, for children and adults with learning/behavior problems. The Feingold Diet eliminates synthetic food dyes, artificial flavorings and the preservatives BHA, BHT, and TBHQ.
The charity's advisory board and board of directors include medical professionals from Johns Hopkins University, the University of Rochester, Stony Brook University, Baltimore's Sinai Hospital, and other institutions.
Individual dietary needs vary and no one diet will meet everyone's daily requirements. Before starting any new diet, check with your doctor or nutritionist.
Do artificial food colors promote hyperactivity in children with hyperactive syndromes? A meta-analysis of double-blind placebo-controlled trials. DW Schab et al., Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics 25(6):423-434, Dec 2004
The Effects of a Double Blind Placebo Controlled Artificial Food Colourings and Benzoate Preservatives Challenge on Hyperactivity in a General Population Sample of Pre-school Children. B. Bateman, J.O. Warner, E. Hutchinson, T. Dean, P. Rowlandson, C. Gant, J. Grundy, C. Fitzgerald and J. Stevenson, Archives of Disease in Childhood 89: 506-511, June 2004
Food additives and hyperactive behaviour in 3-year-old and 8/9-year-old children in the community: a randomised, double-blinded, placebo-controlled trial. D McCann et al., Lancet 2007 Nov 3;370(9598):1560-7.