Earlier this week, Kraft Foods announced that starting in 2016 they will no longer include synthetic colors in their boxed macaroni and cheese. As expected, the Food Babe took all the credit and declared it a victory for her activism to petition companies to remove “harmful” ingredients. In reality, she’s just a bully with no idea what she’s talking about, but it does seem that Kraft is following a trend set by others. In February Nestle announced they too would be removing artificial colors from their candies, and I’ve noticed this trend in the grocery stores – many companies have transitioned to natural food colorings like annatto and turmeric instead of artificial colorings, and they are boasting it proudly on their labels. Just the other day my husband and I treated the kids to a Tillamook ice cream cone at the beach and they both predictably picked mint chocolate chip. When the lady behind the counter handed me the cone, I thought she’d made a mistake. “Is this chocolate chip or mint chocolate chip?” I asked her. “It’s mint. Tillamook took the green food coloring out of it recently.”
There’s definitely this feeling that because companies are removing artificial colors from their products they are confirming what others have suspected all along: artificial food coloring must be bad for us, see? They’re taking it out! But, is that true? Are people mistaking a marketing or public relations move for an admission that food coloring is harmful?
Before you all jump down my throat, let me state the obvious: no one needs food dye. It serves absolutely no nutritional purpose, and I do fully support taking it out because it contributes nothing to our food, except to make it look more appealing. And it’s not even the healthy food that they’re trying to make look more appetizing to kids – it’s the junk food. Where do you find most of the food dye? Primarily in sugary, packaged snack foods like cookies, candy, ice cream and soft drinks. You can make a really convincing argument to avoid food dyes for the following reasons: it’s unnecessary and it entices kids to eat crappy food. If you want to avoid food dye to send a message to food manufacturers that you think they’re unnecessary, by all means, go right ahead.
But it’s an entirely different argument to say you avoid food dye because it’s bad for our kids’ health. Are they actually harmful? That’s really what I wanted to know more about, because food dye is in a lot of other surprising places as well: yogurt, pickles, toothpaste, mouth wash and medications (you think that purple “grape” color is natural?) Am I damaging my kids’ health by buying toothpaste with blue dye? What does the science actually say?
It all started about 30 years ago when Dr. Ben Feingold coined the “Feingold diet” as a treatment for hyperactivity. This diet eliminated a number of things, including some artificial colors. Lots of studies have been done since then, and I read through a number of them. My conclusion was this: there is good evidence to suggest that for some children who have ADHD, artificial food color can exaggerate hyperactive behavior. But, I’m not a scientist or a doctor, so I reached out to Dr. Kathleen Berchelmann to make sure I wasn’t missing something. Berchelmann is a pediatrician and Associate Professor at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis as well as a mom to five children aged 18 months to ten years, one of whom has ADHD. Berchelmann is also the director of the Children’s MD blog associated with St. Louis Children’s Hospital. When I read her post, “Does Red Food Dye Cause ADHD or Hyperactivity?” I knew she’d be a good person to talk to. Plus, I’m from St. Louis – it seemed like a good match.
Berchelmann got interested in food dyes because parents were asking her about it in her practice. “It comes up all the time in my practice,” she said. “People are asking me for medications free of dye, can they get antibiotics without food dye. I started to learn which pharmacies carry it, how to prescribe without it. It became clear to me that this is an important issue for parents despite the fact that the general consensus in the medical community was that it made no difference, but parents wanted me to make huge efforts calling pharmacies to get them drugs without food dyes.” So she did some research and (I was pleased to discover) came to a similar conclusion as I did. She did caveat, though, that the science is still unclear because it’s very difficult to do a good study on the effects of food dye on behavior. “It’s hard to take a group of children and say, ok you’re not going to have any food dye for a month or a year because it’s so ubiquitous in our society. And then you’re going to have to say, ok kids now you’re going to eat a lot of food dye – very few parents are going to do that. And then you have to look for change in behavior. And at what dose? So we don’t have very clear answers.”
Berchelmann also pointed out that there are lots of confounders in a study that looks at dose because kids who are eating large doses of food dye are probably eating a pretty “junky” diet anyway, so it makes it hard to do a good controlled study. Which brings up a good point – many foods that have food dye in them are high in sugar, but one of the studies I looked suggested that there hasn’t been any good scientific link between sugar consumption and hyperactivity. That seems counterintuitive, right? I mean, how many of us have seen our kids bouncing off the walls after eating a bunch of sugar? When I asked our family pediatrician about that, he turned the question around on me: is it the sugar? Or is it the fact that kids tend to eat a high dose of sugar in environments that already lend themselves to hyperactive behavior (like birthday parties and other celebrations?) “Just because there has never been a study that proves a connection between sugar and behavior, that doesn’t mean a connection doesn’t exist,” Berchelmann said. “That just means we haven’t done a good study. The science of parenting and pediatrics is limited. By the time you get a well enough controlled study, you’re really not replicating anything in real life. It’s a very hard subject to study.”
The good news is that over time, we amass a good bunch of studies that all kind of point in the same direction. And at this point, it seems that for a certain sub-group of children who have ADHD, it makes sense to eliminate food dye from their diets. In fact, Berchelmann was particularly interested in some newer studies coming out of Scotland that look at the genetics of children who seem to have hyperactivity in response to food dye. “There is some research that shows that there are certain sub groups of children who have a certain genetic profile that have behavior changes due to food dye,” she said. “But in a broad population, on average there isn’t much impact. It’s this sub group. The researchers in Scotland have started to say there are genetic markers in these children who get behavior changes due to food dye.”
So that’s all very interesting and promising for families trying to manage ADHD. But what about those of us whose children do not have ADHD? Is there anything else to be concerned about? “If your child has never had symptoms of ADHD, I don’t think you need to worry about food dye,” Berchelmann said. “I’m not really convinced that they’re so bad for your health. I don’t believe they’re as toxic as the general public believes.” What about claims that food dye is carcinogenic? Or that it comes from petroleum? “The carcinogenic nature of food dye has been hotly debated for some time now, but the FDA continues to permit their use, and the equivalent in Australia and Europe also approves their use.” The bottom line is that while there have been studies done that look at carcinogenicity, it’s not definitive, and there’s not enough to convince any of the regulatory bodies to limit their use. As for petroleum – it is true that some food dye is derived from petroleum, but it’s not like your kids are eating crude oil. In some cases, it’s derived from a petroleum by-product, and the molecules are isolated and purified. Keep in mind that there are also other useful things we use every day that are also made from petroleum, like plastic food storage containers, vitamins and aspirin.
Berchelmann’s family does avoid food dyes, but not because her son has ADHD – in fact removing food dye from his diet didn’t seem to have an impact. She avoids them because she strives for a healthy all-around diet for her family. “I could very much agree with the fact that food dye contributes to the obesity epidemic because it entices children to eat food they wouldn’t otherwise eat. Can you imagine if there was a food snack that was a beigy-white-brown color, would your kids eat it? No. But kids do eat foods that have natural colors like strawberries.” Not only that, but she told me it’s a problem for her as a mom. “If I have some junky dyed food like fruit snacks or kool aid in my house, I get kids begging for it, misbehaving because they want it, filling up on it before dinner. It’s more of a problem to have that stuff in my house because of the kids’ desire for those foods.”
So there are valid reasons to avoid food dye, but unless your child has ADHD, avoiding it because you think it’s bad for kids’ health seems fully unsupported. “If your kids are not showing ADHD symptoms, there’s no reason to pursue an ADHD therapy,” said Berchelmann. And that’s really all the science has to say about it – it can be beneficial for some kids who have ADHD. In other words, just because Kraft and Nestle removed food dye because of pressure from food activists doesn’t mean you have to freak out because you just discovered your child’s favorite toothpaste has artificial color in it. Carry on, the toothpaste is fine.