Are food dyes harmful to kids? Does artificial coloring make kids hyperactive? Here are the facts you need to know!
Has your kid ever had a blue-stained tongue from a lollipop or pink frosting-smeared lips? And have you ever felt a twinge of worry, wondering whether those bright, colorful dyes are harmless or harmful–especially after reading something scary about dyes online?
I used to feel that way too. Food dyes have long been controversial, and there’s still some debate, confusion, and misinformation around them. So I dug into the research to get the answers we all need.
What is artificial food coloring?
There are two kinds of colors added to foods and drinks:
- Synthetic food dyes are man-made colors, and they’ve been around in the food supply for more than 150 years. Nine synthetic dyes are approved to use in food by the FDA, but Red 40, Yellow 5, and Yellow 6 are the ones you’ll see on labels the most.
- Natural food colors are mostly derived from plants including vegetables and fruit, such as beet juice (red or pink) and turmeric (yellow).
How do you know whether a product contains dyes?
Check the ingredient list. All synthetic food dyes MUST be listed by name with color plus a number (such as “Red 3” or “Blue 2”). If the product contains natural colors, the list may say things like “paprika extract (color)”. Here’s the tricky but important part: If you only see “artificial colors” or “color added” on the ingredient list, that actually means it contains natural color–and in this case, “artificial” simply means color was added that wasn’t there originally.
Which foods have artificial food coloring?
Foods that are unnaturally colorful (think candy and vividly colored drinks) often contain synthetic dyes. But synthetic dyes can also be in some surprising places, like frozen waffles, pickles, salad dressing, vanilla cake frosting, and white marshmallows.
In the U.S., we take in more than five times the amount of synthetic food dye as we did in the 1950s. And kids consume a lot more food dyes than adults do. That makes sense, since so many “kid foods” are often made with dyes, like brightly colored cereal and fruit drinks. The dyed foods and drinks that kids consume the most, according to researchers, are:
- Fruit-flavored drinks
- Ice cream & ice pops
- Fruit leathers/gummy fruit snacks
- Frosting & baking decorations (like sprinkles)
What about food dyes in medicine?
Even if you don’t buy foods with dyes, your child’s medicine may contain them. Dyes are typically added to make flavored medicines seem like the appropriate color (like a grape-flavored medicine that’s purple).
In a study published in Food and Chemical Toxicology, researchers measured the levels of food dyes in children’s supplements and medicines. They found that vitamins and tablets weren’t a significant source for dyes for kids. But pain reliever syrups and cough/cold/allergy syrups were–in some cases, at levels above the FDA’s “Acceptable Intake”.
In fact, they found that intake of Red No. 40 could be twice the Acceptable Intake for some pain relievers and three times the Acceptable Intake for some cough/cold/allergy syrups. So if you want to avoid dyes, read medicine labels, look for dye-free options for over-the-counter meds, and ask your pharmacist about prescription medicines.
Are food dyes really made from petroleum?!
Yes, but it’s not the same as ingesting crude oil–which is a common scare tactic you’ll see out there. It’s a lot more complicated than that. Petroleum is a rich source of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen, so those molecules are extracted from petroleum, purified, and turned into powders or liquids to use in foods and drinks. It sounds like a crazy process, but other products you probably use regularly–like some vitamins, gum, and medicines–are made with these same molecules from petroleum.
Is artificial food coloring harmful?
The FDA says says that food dyes–like all the food additives they’ve approved–are safe. But the FDA does have a few cautions:
- Yellow 5 can cause itching and hives for some people.
- Carmine/cochineal extract, a red color made from insects, can cause an allergic reaction for some people. So this color, even though it’s a “natural” color, will always be specifically named in ingredient lists.
- Synthetic dyes may affect some children’s behavior. The FDA says that while the evidence shows most kids have no adverse effects, some children may be sensitive to them.
The consumer advocacy group Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) also claims that Yellow 5 and Yellow 6 (two of the most commonly used food dyes) may be contaminated with benzidine, a compound that’s linked to cancer. Though the FDA tests for benzidine, CSPI says the established safe limits aren’t appropriate for kids, who take in more dyes and have smaller bodies.
Do artificial food dyes make kids hyperactive?
For decades, researchers have been studying synthetic food dyes and children’s behavior. In the 1970s, pediatric allergist Ben Feingold developed an elimination diet for behavior and attention issues in kids that nixed dyes (plus other food additives like artificial sweeteners and certain preservatives) that some parents still use today.
Since then, some studies like these have shown possible links between dyes and behavior:
- An analysis of studies in 2012 concluded that about eight percent of kids with ADHD have symptoms that are caused or worsened by dyes. Eight percent of all diagnosed kids in the U.S. works out to nearly a half million that could be affected by dyes.
- A 2007 UK study found that a portion of young children (including those without an ADHD diagnosis) showed inattention, impulsivity, and hyperactivity within as little as one hour after drinking a dyed beverage. (This study was criticized by some because the drink also contained a preservative, which may have impacted kids too.)
- A new report from the California EPA concluded that synthetic food dyes can lead to hyperactivity and other neurobehavioral problems like inattentiveness and restlessness in some children–and that children seem to vary in their sensitivity to food dyes.
Why are some kids sensitive to food dyes (and others aren’t)?
Nobody knows for sure, but researchers have come up with some theories:
- Dyes might cause the release of histamine from cells, which can impact the brain.
- Dyes might “leak” out of the gut and into the body (the general concept of a “leaky gut” is controversial).
- Dyed foods tend to be more highly-processed, and kids might be reacting to an overall less nutritious, ultra-processed diet.
How much dye is too much for kids?
Researchers say children in studies reacted the most to 50mg or more dye (though some kids did react to less). Here are amounts per serving in some common drinks (source: Amounts of artificial food colors in commonly consumed beverages and potential behavioral implications for consumption in children):
- Country Time Pink Lemonade: 0.2 mg
- Gatorade Lemon Lime: 3.4
- Hawaiian Punch Green: 19 mg
- Powerade Orange: 22.1 mg
- Orange Crush: 33.6 mg
- Sunny D Orange Strawberry: 41.9 mg
Here are amounts per serving in some common foods (source: Amounts of artificial food dyes and added sugars in foods and sweets commonly consumed by children):
- Strawberry NutriGrain Bar: 2.5 mg
- Fruit Gushers (1 pouch): 3.7 mg
- Red Fla-vor-Ice ice pop: 3.8 mg
- Coldstone Creamery Mint Ice Cream (1 scoop): 6.0 mg
- Duncan Hines Red Velvet Cake Mix: 9.5 mg
- Frosted Cherry PopTart: 10.1 mg
- Jell-O Orange: 12.2 mg
- Cheese & Peanut Butter Crackers (8 crackers): 14.4 mg
- Fruit Loops: 14.6 mg
- Fruity Pebbles: 19 mg
- Red slushie (small): 22.4 mg
- Strawberry Wafer Cookies (3): 24.2 mg
- Skittles (1 package): 33.3 mg
- Trix: 36.4 mg
- Cap’n Crunch Oops All Berries: 41.3 mg
Aren’t these dyes banned in the EU?
No, but there are warning labels on products. The Food Standards Agency (the EU’s version of the FDA) started requiring warning labels in 2010 for any products with dyes. The warning label states: “‘May have an adverse effect on activity and attention in children”. A lot of companies switched to using natural colors (like beet juice and annatto) to avoid the warning labels.
In 2011, the FDA voted on whether to require those same warning labels in the U.S., but decided there wasn’t enough evidence (the vote was 8-6 against labels–by no means unanimous). The committee said that more research needs to be done on whether food dyes are safe for kids.
Why don’t all companies use natural colors?
Synthetic dyes are less expensive, easier to use, and give a more consistent color. Since natural colors come from plants, they have wider variation, and the colors tend to be less vivid and more subtle.
Should you avoid artificial food dyes?
Some parents choose to avoid additives like synthetic food dyes and artificial sweeteners, and that’s a valid choice. Dyes don’t serve any purpose in food except color–and more companies are changing over to plant-based colors because of consumer demand. So it’s easier than ever to find naturally colored versions of things like fruit-flavored yogurt.
If you’re wondering whether dyes affect your child’s behavior, eliminate them and see if you notice any difference. I’ve talked to parents who have noticed a change after avoiding dyes and others who haven’t.
Here’s what I do
Personally, I don’t tend to buy products that contain dyes since there are so many naturally-colored alternatives. But I don’t stress out about birthday cake at a party or an occasional ice cream cone either. If I thought my kids were sensitive to dyes, I would do things differently.
Should kids with ADHD avoid food dyes?
Some kids with ADHD might benefit from a dye-free diet. Others may not experience a difference. Read more about this: Is There a Diet for ADHD That Actually Works?