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Food Dye: The Surprising Effect on Kids

This post was updated in May 2019.

As you take in all that the food world has to offer your child, you may notice the “rainbow” of colors your child is supposed to be eating is NOT coming from fruit and vegetables, but rather from food full of artificial food dyes.

You may wonder whether your child is getting too much. And, how these additives are affecting your child. 

What I know as a childhood nutritionist is this: Artificial food dye may have an effect on kids. You need to know about it because if it does affect your child, you can make some changes.

In this article, I am paying special attention to children with ADHD, and their diet, which may contain food dyes. I’ll look at the potential effects, and what you can do about it. 

Kids and Artificial food colors

Does Food Dye Affect Behavior?

The issue of food colors, preservatives, and other food components is a hot one, especially if you have a child who demonstrates a change in behavior when he or she eats food containing additives. 

While we don’t have data on the rates of sensitivity across all childhood populations, we do have some information about children with ADHD.

One study indicated that up to 8% of children with ADHD were sensitive to additives such as artificial food colors. The symptom that sensitive kids tend to exhibit is hyperactivity.

While not all children with ADHD are sensitive to artificial food dyes, as I mentioned, some kids may be and it helps to know this. 

Why is Artificial Food Dye Added?

Food dyes, also known as color additives, are added to food to enhance or maintain their appearance—taking them from drab to dramatic. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) allows 9 different artificial food colors in our food supply.

Four Color Additives are Widely Used:

  • FD&C Red #40 (also called Allura Red)
  • Yellow #5 (also known as Tartrazine)
  • Yellow #6 (Sunset Yellow)
  • Blue #1 (Brilliant Blue)

Here are some of the reasons manufacturers add dyes and colors to food:

  • So they can bring color to a food that would be essentially colorless without it (ie, candy)
  • To enhance or brighten colors already in food
  • So they can prevent the loss of color due to environmental elements such as heat
  • To keep the product appearance consistent over time

Artificial Food Colors: The Surprising Effects on Children

The Difference: Natural and Artificial Food Colors

Natural food colors come from the pigment of foods like beta-carotene (carrots), grape skin extract (grapes) and saffron (a spice), and may add additional health qualities to the food itself. 

Synthetic food dyes are produced from chemicals.

Two types of food colorings exist: Dyes and lakes.

Dyes are water-soluble (they dissolve in water). They typically come in the form of powders, granules, or liquids.

Lakes are not water-soluble and are found in products containing fats and oils.

The FDA regulates and guarantees the purity and safety of artificial food colorings. As it stands in the United States today, food dyes are considered safe for human consumption.

(In the European Union, Red #40 and Yellow #5 and #6 have been taken off the market; foods with other artificial food colors are required to have warning labels.)

Where is Food Dye Found?

There is no nutritional value in artificial food colorings—they do not add nutrients or calories to food. Beverages are one of the largest sources of artificial food colors due to the large volumes consumed in a serving.

Many foods contain artificial food colors, especially sweets and treats. Be on the lookout for: candy, ready-to-eat cereals, popsicles, ice cream, jello, cakes, boxed dinners, and snacks.

Even foods without color, like white icing and marshmallows, may contain artificial food colors to make them look whiter. And other products like pickles contain yellow and blue dye to make the product look greener.

Artificial Color Load of Selected Foods

The following table is adapted from research appearing in Clinical Pediatrics where Laura Stevens and colleagues measured the artificial color load in a variety of foods. 

Although this is not a comprehensive list, nor does it represent the full listing within the article, it does provide a window to the world of foods with artificial food dyes.

I interviewed Laura on The Nourished Child podcast and she gave even more insight about artificial food dyes, especially in children with ADHD.

 Food                Serving size  Colors added  AFC (mg)
 Fruit Loops  1 small box R40, B2, Y6, B1,  annatto, turmeric  14.6
 Fruity Cheerios  ¾ cup R40, Y6, B1  31.8
 Kellogg’s Strawberry   Nutri-grain bar  1 bar R40, caramel,  strawberries  2.5
 Cherry popsicle  1 pop R40  9.9
Yoplait strawberry kiwi yogurt  1 container (~5oz) B1, Y5, R40  4.5
 Dannon Raspberry   Light n Fit yogurt  1 container (~6 oz) R40, B1  5.1 
 Strawberry wafer   cookies  3 cookies R40  24.2
 Betty Crocker’s red   cupcake icing  2 tablespoons R40, R3  34.7 
 Keebler cheese and   peanut butter crackers  8 crackers Y6  14.4
 Kraft creamy French   dressing  2 tablespoons Y6, Y5  5.0
 Hamburger Helper  1 cup prepared Y5, Y6  7.7
 M & M’s milk chocolate candies  48 pieces B1, B2, Y5, Y6, R40  29.5
 Skittles original  1 packet = 61 pieces B1, B2, Y5, Y6, R40  33.3
 Welch’s Fruit Snacks  13 pieces R40, B1  3.5
 Red Twizzlers  3 sticks R40  11.2
 Fruit Roll-Ups (red-   yellow)  1 roll R40, Y5, Y6  3.0

CODE: B1 = Blue #1; B2 = Blue #2; Y5 = Yellow #5; Y6 = Yellow #6; R3 = Red #3; R40 = Red #40

Should I Limit Artificial Food Coloring?

For children who show sensitivity to artificial food dye, yes, you should limit their intake or be sure to reduce their exposure them to it.

Specifically, limit the artificial food color load to 100 milligrams/day or less.

Now What?!

Whether you decide to reduce, eliminate, or do nothing about artificial food colors, it is of benefit to know about them, understand where they are found, and to get a sense of the amounts in your family’s diet.

If you have a child who shows sensitivity to artificial food colors, I suggest you start down-grading those dye-filled food sources and look for healthy dye-free foods for your family’s diet.

I know that sounds simplistic and I know it’s not necessarily easy.

However, any small step to reduce or eliminate the load of artificial food dyes in your child’s diet will be a step in the right direction!

What do you think about artificial food colors?

To learn more, sign up to view my video: The ADHD Diet for Kids: Dodging the Most Common Nutrition Mistakes (so You Can Help Your Child Focus, Behave and Grow).

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  2. Great article, Jill. I try to avoid artificial dyes whenever I can. We had a child who was sensitive to it and found it to be a bladder irritant as well – esp. red #40. Made potty training a bit challenging. :-\