Do Food Dyes Affect Behavior?

Do artificial food dyes affect behavior

Coloring Easter eggs with the smell of vinegar in the air, brightly colored sweetened drinks or candies and neon gelatin jigglers (not even healthy ones)…. Those were my childhood memories involving food dyes, and they were great memories.

Most of those foods bring back memories of special times with family, playing outside with neighbors or visits to my Grandma’s house, but my own children (hopefully) won’t associate these memories with brightly colored foods.

This time of year especially, food dyes are especially popular as millions buy little pellets of artificial dyes to color easter eggs and brightly colored jelly beans, marshmallow chickens and more to adorn Easter baskets.

But should our celebrations include these dyes? Short answer: no. Long answer…

Rose Colored Glasses – Are Food Dyes Harmless?

When I was younger, I never even thought about questioning the safety of food dyes. I assumed that if food dyes were allowed in foods, they must be safe.

Certainly, the food dyes were not the only problems with many of the foods I used to consume and I cringe when I think about the sugar, artificial sweeteners and chemical additives, but food dyes deserve their own scrutiny, especially since they are added to so many foods that are marketed to children!

When we think about it, it seems logical that consuming candy, drinks, or foods with added petroleum based colorings not found in nature might be problematic, but the problem is just that… often we don’t stop and think about it.

Think artificial dyes are a harmless or a minor ingredient? Consider this…

  • Food companies add more than 15 million pounds of artificial food dyes to foods each year (Over five times the amount added to the food supply when our parents were children)
  • Artificial food dyes have been linked to behavioral problems, various types of cancers and other problems (1)
  • The European Union requires foods with food dyes to come with a warning label and has banned many of the dyes still used in the US
  • Many people come in contact with food dyes without even realizing it in toothpastes, crackers, pickles, yogurt, potato chips, pastas and other foods that would not be obvious sources of dyes

What’s In a Dye?

There are seven artificial food dyes approved for use in foods in the US. The most commonly used dyes are Red 40, Yellow 5, and Yellow 6, which make up 90%+ of the market.

These dyes are created synthetically in several ways. Some dyes are created by burning coal tar and others are derived from petroleum byproducts like tartrazine and erythrosine.

These artificial dyes are added to foods to enhance their color and make them more “kid friendly” but they are nutritionally void and potentially harmful. Many food dyes have already been banned by the FDA after research found that they caused substantial health problems (from minor illness to cancer) and surprisingly little research has been done to prove that the remaining seven dyes are safe.

Seeing Red: Artificial Food Dyes and Behavior?

In the EU, foods containing artificial food dyes are required to carry a warning that:

Consumption may have an adverse effect on activity and attention in children.

Those same foods are routinely marketed to children in the US without any such warning. The FDA currently holds the position that they have not found any conclusive evidence that food dyes cause behavior problems in children but that some children who are susceptible will notice increased symptoms of ADHD from consumption of food dyes:

Exposure to food and food components, including artificial food colors and preservatives, may be associated with adverse behaviors, not necessarily related to hyperactivity, in certain susceptible children with ADHD and other problem behaviors, and possibly in susceptible children from the general population.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) released a 68-page report detailing the potential of artificial food dyes to contribute to hyperactivity in children, increase cancer risk and lead to other health problems. You can read the full PDF document here.

Research suggests that some children may be susceptible to even tiny amounts of artificial dyes but that a significant number of children were affected by amounts over 35 mg per day. Recent research from Purdue University showed the amount of dyes in common foods was much higher than expected and that one bowl of brightly colored cereal or some candy and macaroni and cheese was enough to break the 35mg threshold.

In fact, it was estimated that many children are consuming 3-4 times the 35mg amount per day.

The research on artificial dyes and behavior is still developing, but the personal experience of many moms is astounding. I have friends who noticed a drastic difference in their children’s personalities after removing dyes and who can immediately tell if their children have consumed a food with dyes by the drastic behavior change.

Again- these cases are not scientific research, but for parents of children struggling with hyperactivity, dietary changes might be worth a try.

Feingold Diet and Elimination Diets

Dr. Benjamin Feingold first published a book called “Why Your Child is Hyperactive” in the 1970s. A pediatrician and allergist, Feingold suggested that certain food additives, including artificial dyes, contributed to hyperactivity and symptoms of ADD or ADHD in children.

His book detailed his protocol for reducing these problems in a two-stage approach:

  1. The first stage removes food additives including dyes and salicylate compounds found in some natural foods, as well as chemicals in personal care products and cleaning products. Natural foods containing salicylates include: “Almonds, Apples, Apricots, Berries, Cherries, Cloves, Coffee, Cucumbers, Currants, Grapes, Nectarines, Oranges, Peaches, Peppers (bell & chilli), Pickles, Plums, Prunes, Raisins, Rose hips, Tangelos, Tangerines, Tea, Tomatoes.”
  2. Stage 2 helps identify which of the salicylate compounds are not tolerated and develop a long-term plan

The Feingold protocol is still popular today and many moms use this program to help determine if food additives are causing problems for their children. A modified approach to this diet seems more popular in online support groups for moms of children with hyperactivity or allergies. In most cases, it seems that parents notice a benefit to their children from removing artificial dyes, MSG, and excess sugar.

To Dye For: The Bottom Line

Artificial food dyes do nothing to improve the nutritional value of food but simply enhance the color, making processed foods more attractive, especially to children.

While these chemical dyes are still legal for use in the US, they have been banned or carry warning labels in the EU and other countries. The same food companies that sell foods with artificial dyes in the US produce naturally colored versions to sell in other countries, proving that it IS possible to create even their processed foods without the artificial dyes.

Most foods that contain artificial dyes are highly processed anyway and are wise to avoid, but food dyes can be added to unexpected foods like pickles, fresh oranges, meats, yogurts, crackers, canned fruits and much more.

Since these artificial dyes don’t add anything beneficial to foods and are most often found in highly processed foods, nothing is lost by avoiding them. Don’t wait for regulation or warnings, just ditch these foods now.

What to do?

Artificial food dyes are just one item on an ever-growing list of reasons to avoid processed foods. Unfortunately, food dyes can be sneaky so avoiding them can take some effort. Here are some tips:

  • Buy organic– dyes can be hidden in produce, meats, pickles, salad dressings and other foods. Buy organic whenever possible and read labels.
  • Stick to real foods in whole form – A head of broccoli or bunch of spinach is much less likely to contain food dyes than any food that comes in a box or bag.
  • Check Personal Care Products – Many toothpastes, mouthwashes, shampoos and makeups contain artificial dyes as well. Though these are not being ingested, research indicates that they can be absorbed by the body and evidence is lacking on skin safety for these dyes.
  • Use Natural Alternatives – For common artificial food dye containing recipes that you make at home, consider using a naturally derived dye instead.

Do you have any experience with artificial food dyes? Do you let your children consume these foods?

Are Food Dyes Affecting Your Child's Behavior

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Reader Comments

  1. I definitely agree with this! I noticed when my boy was younger that foods with heavy red food dye would make him extremely depressed. We used to make a lot of kool-aid and his Granny kept those cheap hot dogs for him to eat on. I had to cut out every thing (that I knew of) with red food dye. He also has problems with the sweetener Xylitol that is in alot of brands of chewing gum. He loves to chew gum and we noticed that certain brands would cause mood swings he would get irritable and then start crying and finally end up depressed.

  2. I have a 7 year old daughter who started getting horrible daily migraines at 4. We tried various medications with nothing working. We changed pediatriacians when she was 5 and she suggested maybe food additives and food dyes. So we eliminated food dyes and she rarely gets migraines. When she does we now use essential oils to help eliminate them. We have since let her have some blue on occasion but never red or yellow. It is a pain to have to read every label but it is awesome to have our little girl free from daily migraines. I wish the food companies would take out all the artificial dyes in products….maybe one day.

    • I have a daughter who gets migraines from time to time. What is essential oils do you use?

      • There are a few oils you can try. Depending on how old she is, you will need to heavily dilute with a carrier oil (almond, coconut, jajoba, olive). You could try peppermint, lavender, or frankincense. Any of these would be a good starting point. Also be sure that she is drinking plenty of water as this can cause headaches. We’ve had excellent experiences with essential oils.

      • I understand putting frankincense on your thumb and pressing it on the roof of your mouth for a few seconds helps. You want to make sure it’s a good quality organic oil though. My daughter has suffered from migraines and so I just bought some for her to use in case she has another attack. Thankfully it has been a while since she has pretty much cut out gluten except we use sprouted grain bread now and that doesn’t seem to bother her. She’s also cut out a lot of refined sugar and no soda. She makes sure to get more protein and lots of fruits and vegetables. Our chiropractor also recommended that she take Co q-10 and make sure to get magnesium, I believe, in her multivitamin.

  3. My eldest son had major behavioral problems and was put on an IEP while attending preschool (age 3). I eliminated all foods dyes and stopped eating processed foods that contain MSG’s. I also following the Weston Price food diet and had him consume fish oil. I also made some magnesium body lotion and applied it daily and have seen vast improvement. By the first quarter in kindergarten, there was so much improvement with his behavior and was not effecting his academics, that he was taken off his IEP. He is doing good in school and interacts with other kids his age just fine. If he eats too much processed food or anything with food dye, he will do crazy. But its amazing how much your diet effects your well being.

  4. And in DOG FOOD!! 🙁

    And in lotions and creams, “ingested” through the skin to the bloodstream, as the skin is permeable. People forget that, and the young have no idea. !!

  5. A doctor flat out told my mother (this was over 20yrs ago) to not give my brother anything with red or orange food dye because he was having muscle spasms and twitching problems. Needless to say ALL food dye was cut from our house. Now for my children, it remains the same. If I want purple, I use blueberries. 🙂

  6. my five year old used to have violent, aggressive tantrums. Since we have cut out all artificial food dyes she is a totally different child. She still has tantrums now and then, but nothing like the hitting, kicking, biting tantrums she used to have (except when she is exposed to them–usually at birthday parties or holidays). Any time I hear a mom talking about their child having anger issues or add/adhd I always tell them our story, because while cutting food dye out of their diet won’t hurt them, the meds they use to treat kids these days certainly can.

    • My son was the EXACT same way. When he was 1 yr to 4 yrs old he had hearing problems because of repeating ear infections. So he had a problem w/ trying to communicate w/ other people. In kindergarden he got introuble because of other children messing w/ him and the teacher would see him hitting the other child. But because of that we stopped giving him red 40 and sugar especially in the mornings. His behavior changed! I tried telling my husband but he wouldn’t listen and when he FINALLY made the connection he was believing it. He still doesn’t admit i was right but that was a small victory for me. So we stopped giving our kids artifical dyes unless it is small amount.

      • my husband was the same! He thought I was cooky! He has now seen the light and is on board but it was a tough sell!

  7. Thanks so much for putting this out there. My son is super reactive to artificial colors. I actually think that is why Benadryl makes some kids hyper – because it is purple and they are reacting to the artificial colors.

    My little guy goes nuts when people give him gum. Especially the bright green one! It is almost comical. if i ever pick him up from school, party, playdate, activity and they tell me he was out of control, it is usually because they gave him day glow colored gum! Don’t get me started on why everyone seems to think it’s ok to give kids gum as an incentive/reward. thanks again. Great article

  8. When my son comsumes food dye he wakes up in the middle of the night screaming uncontrollably, and often wets the bed. We all have to walk on egg shells during the day becuase anything will set him off. Sometimes it’s so bad that when his sister says her prayer she has said, “Please let —- be nice.” He has even reacted to Annatto (the ‘natual’ dye). If you look up annatto there is a warming for side effects.

  9. Great article! And on a completely random note the picture of the cupcakes was used for a 1000-piece jigsaw puzzle that my family and I have put together twice! The whole time I was putting it together I was marveling at the gorgeous cupcakes and lamenting the certain use of tons of chemicals ????

    • Haha… that’s funny. I had to buy a stock image for this post since I didn’t have any foods with food dyes around to take pictures of and certainly didn’t want to buy any 🙂

  10. YES!
    This was a timely post… my N.D. recently confirmed that my ASD five-year-old is hyper-sensitive to food dyes, which didn’t alarm me too much because we eat an organic whole food diet that’s about 95% paleo. However, my three-year-old goes to nursery school at church a few hours three days a week and I don’t have much control over what he eats in that environment. He came home from a birthday party in his class room on Monday with his mouth (and both thumbs) stained deep BRIGHT red! I already know he’s sensitive to sugar because he has a sugar bug vein between his eyes, but, my goodness! His behavior on Monday was ALARMINGLY hyperactive and disoriented. He was unbelievably clumsy, kept tripping over everything and nothing, and goofy as a Looney Toons character. He could not stop talking but could not finish any thoughts or sentences and constantly interrupted himself. Poor baby!

  11. Thanks for this article! I recently became aware of the problems with food dye due to “issues” with my own child. My 3 year old son got strep throat a few weeks ago, and they put him on the pink amoxicillin. He has never been on antibiotics, so I didn’t have a clue what to expect. After the first dose, he went nuts. He would talk non-stop and barely sit still. I did some research, thinking maybe he was allergic to the medicine, but realized it was more like he had a problem with the red dye in it. After the first couple of days of the medicine (which he had to take for 10 days), he started becoming irritable. He would act completely rude to adults and give them dirty looks. He would argue uncontrollably. He would start crying over the smallest thing. I really thought my husband and I would lose our minds! Each night before bed, I would count down how many more days he had to take it. Just now, almost a month later, our son is almost back to his old self! I will NEVER again be getting pink amoxicillin! Dyes are no joke. I now wonder how many kids with behavioral problems would really improve without this junk in their diets.

  12. It took me awhile to figure out that one of my daughters had a food dye sensitivity. She would have these horrible “episodes”, fits, tantrums, but way worse. I truly began to wonder if my normally sweet, helpful girl was mentally ill. Her sisters would tiptoe about quietly during these episodes, trying anything to calm her to no avail. I’d end up sobbing, feeling like a parental failure. I started reading anything I could find, and every time someone described her exact symptoms, it was food dye. I was quite skeptical, but after my dh finally witnessed one of these episodes 1st hand, he called the pediatrician. Describing her symptoms, but notmentioning food dye, the nurse finally asked if we’d be willing to try eliminating food dye! We haven’t looked back since, our sweet girl is back! We have decided to do the Feingold diet to make sure we take all triggers out of her diet. Happiness!

  13. I have been wanting to know more about this as I think my son may be allergic to food dyes. He gets very hyper after I give him Fun Dip, I found some on sale after Valentine’s Day. I have noticed he gets very hyper and it is hard for him to focus. Thanks for posting this. It was very helpful.

  14. Did you know that parents started an organization for support and information? It’s called the Feingold Association (named for the dr who wrote Why Your Child is Hyperactive). There are so many products that don’t list the dyes, preservatives and artificial flavorings on the package that they created a foodlist (440 pages) for its members of products by brand name without the chemicals. It’s an awesome part of the membership materials.

  15. Red dye would BLISTER my oldest daughter’s rear end! It was awful until we figured it out. It is no fun putting a knee in your 4 year old daughter’s chest while you clean the sloughing skin off her private parts. That is when we really started reading labels, realizing how sneaky these dyes are, and try our best to avoid them. Both my girls are sensitive and learned to blend colors early to know how to avoid the red. I guess the early art lesson was helpful. We now are doing our best to live a whole food diet with limited processed foods.

  16. I was never allowed artificial dyes as a child so naturally as an adult I avoided them. My daughter is 2yo and I would never give to her, recently I needed Benadryl and since they do not make dye free you can use the capsules and squeeze half the capsule into a bit of juice and pull up with a medicine syringe. I don’t understand why parents would give this garbage to their children and I wish the US government would step up and follow suit with the UK and Europe.

    • Dye free benadryl is availble, as are dye free store brand versions. Not all stores carry them, but Rite Aid and CVS do.

  17. My grand-niece is allergic to red 40. They even have to be careful of meds, play dough, paints and “pink” soap in most dispensers. These dyes are in everything, even things you wouldn’t think of.

  18. Hi I was just wondering how do you know if dyes enter fruits or meats, what are we suppose to do if they are adding them to produce.

  19. Dyes cause significant reactions in my kids and Feingold has been an invaluable resource for us. Dyes just don’t cause “drugged” behavior for us but intense abdominal distress as well. Even at 3 my youngest would ask if something colorful (like clay) or a candy was dyed before playing with it or eating it. For me learning that labels are not required to list all the ingredients in something a final producer bought as as an ingredient for their product. This would be like a frozen pizza company buying premade pepperoni and the final box not having to list everything (like the dye in the nitrate salt mix) on the completed pizza food label.

    The Purdue study was alarming in that the companies that use dyes don’t even know how much dye is present in their final products. They further choose to use far more dye than is necessary to color thier product. Their attitude is more is better and why not dye is cheep and “safe” right? These same companies use vegetal dyes in all their UK products and could easily use those company approved formulations in the US but choose not to.

  20. Its not just a worry for children. I have had too much food colouring as an adult and had uncontrollable hyperactivity. It’s almost impossible to control your actions, and the crash at the end is almost a relief. I had assumed people grow out of these things, but am older and wiser now.

  21. Hi Katie !
    I know I’m quite late for this post. I would love to know if you have any alternative for artificial food dyes 🙂 I want to color food in natural ways.

  22. My now 17 year old son is still sensitive but does not always pay attention. When he was 5 years old we were preparing for an adult outing with friends. Our son was in the living room while we were getting dressed. In what seemed like 2 minutes we came out and he had taken a sharpy to every piece of furniture, picture and walls! Shock would be an understatement. Not long after I had heard from a woman that her grandson had food dye sensitivity. A couple more episodes of destructo boy took place and I took him to the pediatrician who agreed that many childhood diagnoses of ADD were because of food allergies. So we limited his exposure and he was fine. Time will always be the temptation the grocery industry uses to lure us away from healthy eating. But involving your family in the process is wonderful and prepares them for a possible future need. Thanks Katie!

  23. I spent years on medications only to find out I was reacting to dyes! My son is the same and my friend and her daughter. Some people tolerate it but I’m guessing 50% of the world doesn’t and isn’t even aware of it! Why is it legal?! Does the fda know about this? It would cost the drug industry a ton of money, but this is wrong! And scary! Food you can avoid, but I can’t even get my kid throat spray! We have to rinse the dye off of sudafed, this is a shame!

  24. If my child has a hamburger pickle slice, I deal with hours of odd behavior and sometimes serious violent meltdowns/emotional changes. That’s all the more it takes. I have to be very careful what I feed her or put on her body. She is perfectly normal, otherwise. People ignore me when I calmly ask (over and again) that my child not have food coloring. It hurts to always have to be the mom who says no to so much. I really shouldn’t have to. It leaves a parent with no real alternative except to avoid places and people who don’t respect their wishes.

    • My son turned into a monster after eating or drinking anything with red or blue food dye in it. This was 15 years ago. Flinstones vitamins, juices, hard candy etc made him go crazy! One day he took a sharpie to every piece of furniture, window and picture frame in the house. We traced the behavior (and confirmed with the pediatrician) to the dyes…to this day he knows to restrict it. An adorable response one day was, “Mama, can i have purple then?”. So concerning that this could be a form of ADD in children and not diagnosed. Thanks for all you do!

  25. We just went through this with our daughter and it’s amazing the change we’ve seen in her since removing these dyes from her diet!

    She would get angry and out of control when she got any.

  26. My special needs daughter has had two alarming episodes which I am linking to red 40. First one, we were picking up trash on the beach with another scout troop, and when we stopped to rest, the other leader offered my girls Welches fruit snacks. Fruit juice, right? My lil piggy ate about 6 packs, and 5 minutes later, when we were up and walking again, she suddenly began whining, balking, and then screaming. She fell forward and “swam” in the sand, screamed incoherently, cried, and stuffed handfuls of sand in her mouth for more than 5 minutes. When she calmed and “woke up”, she had very little memory of what had happened. That summer, at vacation bible school, they were decorating cookies with M&Ms, frosting, and red shoestring licorice. She ate a lot of the candy. Suddenly, she began whining, grabbing at other kids cookies, and when I walked her outside to calm down, she had no balance or coordination. She sobbed and screamed incoherently for about 5 minutes, and when she finally calmed, again, she had very little memory of what had happened. She also will be giggling, babbling incoherently, and staggering around after some restaurant meals, after eating homemade linguini and clam sauce (canned clams and clam broth), and after a bag of Doritos. Something besides the dye is also affecting her. A preservative?

    • Something besides the dye could be MSG which is definitely in Doritos and very likely in clam broth and some restaurant meals. Adverse reactions can include loss of balance, slurred speech, mental confusion, etc. This site has a list of ingredients that indicate the presence of MSG in a product: http://truthinlabeling.org/hiddensources.html as well as possible adverse effects: http://truthinlabeling.org/Recog.html

  27. Thank you for posting this article. Its crazy how many people dont realize what theyre eating. I am allergic to food dyes, and red 40 is the worst. I always have so much paranoia when i go out to eat because you would be amazed by how many restaurants use food coloring in their foods. I have no memory of this, but when i was little, if i ate anything with red dye, in addition to getting anaphylactic, i would have horrible mood swings and throw major temper tantrums. As long as i dont eat anything red or yellow, im fine. Also some of the natural foods listed (tomato, almond, etc.) i also had/have allergies to. My reaction to tomatoes used to be like the red dye reaction, but now as long as its organic im fine. I cant have any almonds or other trea nuts. Anyway, im really glad that there is someone out there who understands the food coloring problem and is putting it out there for everyone to see. Thank you so much for posting this article.

  28. Hello, Wellness Mama community! 🙂
    I’m 15 and *love* this blog so much. I read it all the time, over and over again. I’ve always been interested in eating healthily and I try to (I avoid candy, especially those with dyes, and eat organic whenever I can or have the opportunity.) However, because I don’t have a job and I’m not supporting myself it’s hard to go gluten free, grain free, paleo, all-organic, etc. And, though I have a tiny garden on our 1/4 acre, we’re moving soon so I can’t plant any vegetables as I’ll be gone. By the time they’ve grown I’ll be somewhere else. Does anyone have suggestions on how I can eat healthily (and persuade my family too)? Thanks!