Artificial Food Colors, Hyperactivity and Behavior Problems

CandyThe use of artificial food coloring in foods has come under scrutiny in the past few years as the medical community considers the role these additives play in causing behavior problems in children.

Artificial food colors have long been thought to aggravate the symptoms of ADHD although this has been much debated over the years. When it comes to this issue, one state is actually considering taking a stand. The state of Maryland is considering two bills that would outlaw the use of artificial food coloring in school foods as well as require a warning label on products that contain them.

Is the banning of artificial food coloring justified? A study published in the Archives of Diseases in Childhood in 2004 looked at the effects artificial food coloring had on 1,873 three-year-old children. It showed that a diet high in artificial food colors and benzoates increased hyperactivity in these kids. As the children who received the diet high in artificial coloring had the artificial colors removed from their diet, their level of hyperactivity dropped significantly. Several other studies have come to similar conclusions.

Some of the artificial food colors the state of Maryland is considering banning include blue dye #1 and green dye #3. Other food colors that would be affected by the ban are red dye #3, blue dye #2, yellow dye #5, yellow dye #6, red dye #40, and orange B. Some of these artificial colors have already been banned in Europe due to concern about health effects. Some of them are thought to be associated with cancer including green dye #3 which has been linked with an increased incidence of bladder cancers.

Why is artificial food coloring added to food? One reason is an appealing color can subtly influence the consumer’s perception of taste. Who would want a lollipop if it had no color? Adding food coloring can also make food look “fresher” and more appealing, thus increasing sales.

Although the majority of companies use artificial colors for this purpose due to cost, there are natural food colorings available such as vegetable dyes and spice extracts such as tumeric. These offer a safer and healthier alternative to synthetic coloring products.

If you aren’t fortunate enough to live in state like Maryland that’s considering banning these additives, how can you reduce your kids’ exposure to artificial food coloring? The best way is to feed your child natural, whole foods rather than boxed, packaged or processed ones. If you need to use packaged products out of convenience, read the label and see if any artificial food colors are listed in the ingredients. You can also look for foods that use natural food colorings derived from fruits and vegetables. These can be found at natural food markets and health food stores. Avoid giving in to your child’s demands to buy that “pretty red cereal” and choose whole grain cereal or oatmeal instead.

By shopping carefully and reading labels, you can reduce the amount of artificial food coloring your child is exposed to on a daily basis even if you don’t happen to live in the state of Maryland.

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Carole Derrick, Primary Grades Teacher