Do Food Dyes Affect Behavior?

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Do artificial food dyes affect behavior
Wellness Mama » Blog » Health » Do 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

Katie Wells Avatar

About Katie Wells

Katie Wells, CTNC, MCHC, Founder of Wellness Mama and Co-founder of Wellnesse, has a background in research, journalism, and nutrition. As a mom of six, she turned to research and took health into her own hands to find answers to her health problems. is the culmination of her thousands of hours of research and all posts are medically reviewed and verified by the Wellness Mama research team. Katie is also the author of the bestselling books The Wellness Mama Cookbook and The Wellness Mama 5-Step Lifestyle Detox.


51 responses to “Do Food Dyes Affect Behavior?”

  1. Melissa Avatar

    Thank you for this article!
    A friend of mine suggested losing the dues after seeing him at a get-together a few months ago. Her own son has had great success when she quit the she’s. My own son is currently 3 1/2, was born at 25 weeks and is ODD, ADHD and has SPD…. I’ve been at a loss on how to help him. She told me about the dues and I can tell a difference since we started reading the labels and actually looking for them. Your list definitely will help moving forward bon the journey it seems we are taking on!
    Thanks again!

  2. Hannah Avatar

    I’m late on this post but came back to it because I’ve wondering if you’re heard of anything that can counteract the dyes when they are already consumed. It sounds like some children have the maturity and self-control not to eat foods with dye when available to them (when they are at school, church, etc), but I’m sure that is not always the case. It is so discouraging to go back to the same problems over and over (anger, depression, tantrums, etc), each time the dye is consumed and so frustrating that I can do nothing to prevent it when dd is away from home. I have tried for 8 years (ever since I found out that it was dye was causing these problems) and I’m just worn out. I need some hopeful news on this front. Parents can eliminate the dyes when the child is always with them, or when they have a very mature and compliant child, but otherwise we are left with chronic problems that are triggered over and over. This has really taken a toll in our family.

    1. Gabrielle Avatar

      I am searching for the same answers, how to counteract when they have dye away from home or on accident. Your comment was from a year ago: have you found any answers?

  3. Corinne Avatar

    I grew u with all that as you mentioned but now that I have a daughter I pay more attention to what I feed her..I never really looked into it too much until somebody pointed it out to me and then I started to pay attention. I thought it was crazy but then I gave my daughter some Easter peeps and she went bonkers she wasn’t even herself and I was wondering what happened it must be the sugar…but she could sugar every now and then so I’m like no it’s got to be the peeps the food coloring in the peeps is what set her off! So now my husband and I are believers and we eliminate food dye every chance we get she gets close to none and we use natural resources to color if needed.

  4. Amy Woodbury Avatar
    Amy Woodbury

    I am a nutritionist and was still chewing gum. It was a habit. I was getting more anxious daily. Therefore I chewed more…I finally realized the artificial sweeteners and colors were upsetting my stomach and my mental state. I quit cold turkey and feel myself again. I think adults need to be educated on the harms it does to them as well. Not just kids. All people who consume it are affected negatively. I am inspired to write a book about the subject matter because there is so little information available.

  5. Chelsea Avatar

    Would these dyes have names that do not include a color? In other words, does tricky wording ever make it hard to identify that something IS a dye?

  6. Cheyenne Avatar

    Two of five children are behaviorally affected by dyes. Red dye was my first experience and I only put it together after both children had simultaneous reactions after eating Red Vines at a movie theatre. Their impulsive and aggressive behavior lasted for days. After about 6 days it subsided. The eldest recalled being embarrassed by her behavior. A month later they had Red Vines again—the same behavioral reaction occurred. Both kids have NUT allergies (anaphylactic)-I googled allergies and behavior and discovered the dye affect-link. I couldn’t believe behaviorally it could change my children as it did. They impulse-control, anger management, frustration and intolerance of others was almost Jekyl-Hyde. We can laugh about it now because we can avoid dyes—for the most part. But I feel for others who don’t put it together that what their children consume can affect their behavior. Had I not had two children experiencing it similtaneous after eating the same food I don’t think I would have figured it out. Kids with food sensitivity have different reactions. Nuts, coconut, bananas cause inflammation of their skin, mouth and respiratory tract. You have to assume that other parts of the body including the brain can be adversely affected by things we consume—and so long as the inflammation persists so can the reaction. Inflammation—a troublemaker.

  7. Heather MacCoy Avatar
    Heather MacCoy

    My brother could not tolerate FD&C Yellow #5 (We’re now in our 40’s). When he was in 3rd grade (1982-1983 I think), my mother took him to the eye doctor because he would intermittently bug his eyes out. He had been having some attention issues. The optometrist recommended Dr. Feingold’s book to my mother. We all went completely natural for a while, then she gradually reintroduced more conventional foods. Yellow #5 was the worst, other colors had a lesser effect, he appeared to tolerate flavors and preservatives.
    As an adult, my brother tries to forage for what he can, and avoids soy ingredients.

  8. Hannah Avatar

    I am labelled as a controlling mom (not allowing her to eat what the usual American child eats) who should be medicating the child. My daughter is old enough (10) to say no to these foods, and sometimes she does, but other times she wants to eat what everyone else is eating, even though she knows what will happen. Her brain is affected for 3 days each time, so even if she eats dye twice a week, she spends most of the week with a poorly functioning brain. The saddest thing is knowing that sweet, caring child that she is when she’s not “under the influence”, and realizing that most other people don’t know that child and don’t believe that child exists. They may see that child for a day or two, but they believe that the real child is the angry, defiant one. It’s very sad to know that this is preventable, and so is the trouble she continues to get into at school. I’m at the point where I think I have to come to accept that this is her life as long as she chooses to eat these items, because I’m not with her all the time and i can’t prevent it. I will continue to get bad behavioral reports, and she will miss out on friendships, because of those nasty chemicals that are everywhere except in the homes of a few people like us. I’ve explored every avenue to get adult support in this but i have found none.

  9. Hannah Avatar

    I became aware of my daughter’s reactions to food dye when she was 3 and in preschool. I noticed that every time one of the children brought in cupcakes for a birthday, my daughter would be angry, screaming, hyperactive, and uncontrollable. After some research and an elimination diet, i discovered that she not only to reacts to dyes in food (including annatto), but also to fragrances and dyes in lotions, flavorings in foods or toothpaste, and even to fragrances from candles or air freshener. We no longer have any fragrances in our home, other than essential oils.. For a while I was able to keep her stable – and even now, when we are on vacation she is much improved, but during the school year she inevitably eats dyes and flavorings at school, and sometimes at church or the gym (she is a competitive gymnast). The prevailing opinion (including that of the school nurse) is that this problem isn’t real, because her reaction isn’t anaphylactic, and I don’t have a doctor’s note (what doctor believes that children are affected by what they eat?) So, instead she is labelled as hyperactive, oppositional defiant, and having anger issues.

  10. Aly Marcel Avatar
    Aly Marcel

    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!

    1. Bobbie Avatar

      Have them read this blog also maybe? Usually a person has to go through something horrible to trigger them to change their eating habits unfortunately. Our horrible experience was having an nursing infant develop severe eczema from an undiagnosed thrush infection gone systemic! That led to leaky gut which led to horrible food allergies and artificial coloring sensitivities. A useless pediatrician and a la leche league leader couldnt figure it out!

  11. Sam Avatar

    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.

  12. Nancy Ceccon Avatar
    Nancy Ceccon

    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?

    1. Deonne Avatar

      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:

    2. Bobbie Avatar

      Doritos contain coloring AND MSG. It’s the worst! They had an organic version for a while, but no more.

  13. Jen Avatar

    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.

  14. Jeannette Avatar

    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.

    1. lisa w Avatar

      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!

  15. Tammy Avatar

    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!

  16. lisa w Avatar

    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!

  17. Kanika Avatar

    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.

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