Food Dyes: Putting Kids First

A bowl of brightly colored children's cereal and soft drink, using artificial food dyes.Just last week, at another of the kids’ birthday parties one (apparently) must attend as the parent of a kindergartener, I found myself once more huddled in a corner, stealthily scraping away the brightly colored frosting from the top of a piece of cake. I was seething with resentment—although I felt none at all toward the entirely well-intentioned parents of the birthday boy. Instead, I was frustrated that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is failing to protect the health and well-being of an estimated half a million children, including my own daughter, who are at risk from synthetic food dyes.

As it so happens, I’m also a lawyer at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit organization that fights for a better, healthier food supply. We’ve been working with scientists for the past year on a new report, just published, describing the scientific evidence that shows kids can be harmed by food dyes.

Food Dyes Linked to Behavioral Problems for Some Children

We found there is an emerging consensus among scientists that food dyes are linked to behavioral problems in susceptible kids. This sensitivity to food dyes likely impacts some half a million kids across the United States. We estimated that the likely financial cost of keeping synthetic dyes in food could be as high as $5 billion every year, in addition to the considerable pain that families experience in dealing with these completely avoidable behavioral problems in affected kids.

This is no surprise for anyone dealing with these issues. More than two thousand parents have written us emails over the past few years, painting a detailed—and harrowing—picture of the chaos that dyes inflict on their children and families, including episodes of inattention, anger and irritability, and even violence. Classmates, teachers and other family members, of course, often suffer right along with the affected child. I never knew my child until we took our four-year-old off dyes, wrote one mom. Another told us that their experiments with removing dyes were a last resort before medicating their child for attention deficit disorder, and of their relief, after years of struggle, that such a simple change worked and that they never had to take that step. Parent after parent wrote us about the skepticism or ignorance of their doctors about food-related reactions, and how alone they felt. Many families also told us that, once they had figured out the connection to dyes, their child would avoid them—even on their own—because they hated how the dyes made them feel.

A few even made videos about their family’s struggle, and some of their stories brought tears to my eyes. My parents could have written their own account, but managed to figure out the problem with me on their own after a particularly awful 4th of July encounter with a red-white-and-blue Rocket Pop. Mystery solved! Still, I know first-hand how parents and kids can be affected by dyes—and how dyes can diminish the focus and attention that all kids need to learn, thrive, and grow. Because there is evidence of genetic influences on a child’s sensitivity to dyes, I’ve also tried to ensure that my five-year-old avoids them whenever we can manage it.

Food Dyes are Ubiquitous

But that’s not easy, as I’ve learned. Food dyes are not only ubiquitous at birthday parties, but in the drinks at the pool, and at summer camp in the Popsicles. Most Halloween candy has dyes, as do breakfast cereals, yogurt tubes, fruit snacks, and other child-oriented foods. Yet in Europe, where a break-through pair of British studies showed that dyes affected children even in the general population (that is, kids without any diagnosed behavior problems), a requirement for a warning label on foods containing dyes led many companies to stop using synthetic dyes, even in some of the same foods sold here in the United States that still contain them. So while a McDonald’s Strawberry Sundae uses Red 40 in America, in Europe that red color comes from actual strawberries. Even M&Ms use natural colorings (except for one blue dye) in Europe, and still have the synthetic colors here, leading mom Renee Shutters to start a Change.org petition asking Mars to give American kids the same protections European children already have.

Given the mounting scientific evidence that dyes can cause harm to kids, such changes seem obvious to me. Synthetic dyes serve no nutritional purpose, and instead are often used to mask the absence of real fruits and vegetables in foods and drinks. Our kids should be eating a rainbow of real foods. Getting rid of synthetic dyes would be a meaningful first step that could help kids make better choices. In addition, and even more critically, it would make it far easier for an estimated half a million affected children to avoid the triggering effects of dyes altogether.

Calling for a Ban on Food Dyes

CSPI published the new report to inform parents, put pressure on the FDA to ban dyes (or, at the least, require a warning label), and pressure companies to drop dyes from their products in the United States in the meantime. But we need your help. Public pressure is the only way that the government or companies will change their policies to protect children from dyes. After launching the report, we’ve started a petition to ask the FDA to withdraw its approvals for dyes, and will be doing targeted campaigns focusing on particular companies in the comings months as well.

It seems to me that the first priority of any food system should be to protect children from harm. Please join the campaign to ban dyes, contribute your stories if your family faces similar issues, spread the word wide and far, and help us to ensure that the rules governing food protect all children from harm. Banning dyes is an achievable step that will improve the safety of the food supply. Working together, we can—and will—get it done, so no more families and children have to struggle for years to figure out the dyes puzzle for themselves.

Laura MacCleery

Ms. MacCleery is a seasoned legislative and regulatory campaigner for improvements to public health. In her current position as Director of Regulatory Affairs for Center for Science in the Public Interest she has been a champion of the new report Seeing Red: Report Finds FDA Fails to Protect Children in Light of New Evidence on Food Dyes. For up-to-date information, follow @CSPI on Twitter.

Note: This Perspectives Blog post is written by a guest blogger of DrGreene.com. The opinions expressed on this post do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Dr. Greene or DrGreene.com, and as such we are not responsible for the accuracy of the information supplied. View the license for this post.

  1. Carol Homann

    I read the comments and am quite surprised If you want to try this out on your kids (and I wouldn’t know why you would want to) give them some multi coloured cup cakes and lollypops and watch their behavior change. They become unruly and hyper active.
    (My daughter calls it “going Harpic,” clean around the bend). Their facial hue will go to bright red as the adrenalin rush opens the capillaries and soon after (if you are lucky) they fall, dead tired, asleep.
    As the immune system includes the lymphatic system, reproductive system, (early menopause, sexual burnout), glandular system, such as the glands in the brain, (becoming forgetful? Don’t remember where you live?) Pancreas. (ulcers and Sugar problems?) Prostate or Bladder, (troubles with the waterworks?) Thyroid, (is your weight weighing you down?) and adrenals, (Your get up and go is gone and went?), you can see what far reaching effects an allergy can have.
    Cancer cells, to which our immune system has developed an Immuno-globulin (Ig), can only multiply if a weakened immune system allows it. ‘Side effects’ to medication is another way of saying an allergic to the chemicals. Allergist such as Dr. Albert Rowe, Richard Mackarness, M.D, Philpott et all, and a host of other scientist claim that allergy is the underlying cause of all disease.
    Allergens will not, and can not be digested, as the brain will not activate the digestive system, but, in an attempt to neutralise the pathogen, it will instead activate the immune system. If this occurs on a regular basis, like in a dairy allergy, which is consumed more than once a day, it will lead to a mal-absorption syndrome, depletion of vitamins, minerals and trace elements. and a depletion of the immune system, leading to more serious diseases.
    See; ‘Fight or Flight’ on the web to get the full spectrum.

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  2. Loren

    I’m so glad I found my soiluton online.

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  3. Stephanie

    I totally agree on the bad for you bit. However, I do not agree on a broad statement. It is a problem for SOME kids. Not all. I grew up on fruity pebbles and koolaid. No behavior issues whatsoever. My kids grew up in Russia picking their own organic produce. Two of my kids orphanage in a small village that didn’t even have transportation or pollutants of that nature. All natural, almost all vegetables they ate. And behavior issues to be sure. I think the key to remember is chemicals effect everyone differently. Do your best to keep them out of your body but I can relate to other’s dilemma of not being able to afford to go all organic. change needs to start there…don’t make it so bloody expensive! We do our best to buy in bulk at the farmer’s market but it is still way over priced. Way over priced. When tax time comes, we are going to do an experiment to see the difference in cost. I bet we’ll be shocked and have to quit early. In addition, I see NO citing of data collected. None. A lawyer does not equate to a scientist.

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  4. Mary B.

    Fear mongering? Really? Take a look at what the dyes are made out of. She also is not required to cite any information. If you are curious or interested, then look it up for yourself. It is not hard to find.
    I think this is a wonderful article that opens the door to one of the most important topics- the health of our children.

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  5. K

    Unfortunately, it took until my daughter was almost 8 years old before we realized that she was sensitive to red dye. Up until then, I had believed that Benadryl just had the opposite effect on her than most children, as she would become “wired” for hours after taking it. I knew she had ADHD, and just contributed all her behavioral problems to that. I had a friend tell me that her son (also with ADHD and other mental disabilities) couldn’t have red dye because it caused him to be extremely aggressive. I still didn’t think much about it in our situation. Then one day, the babysitter told me that she must not have had her medicine that day because she was uncontrollable and literally bouncing off furniture. This made no sense to me because I personally made sure she took her medicine that morning. I then found out that she had been sneaking red fruit roll ups throughout the day. I know that some might say that the sugar probably was the culprit. However, the amount of sugar was probably the equivalent to that of a 20 oz Coke, which actually has a calming effect for her. After realizing her sensitivity, we removed artificial dyes from her diet. It wasn’t long before she was able to reduce the strength of her medication to the lowest possible dose, and needed it during school hours. I just wish it was easier to find things without dye. It’s been years since she has had a fruit roll up, and it’s been torture for her. We have found that Motts makes gusher-like fruit snacks and a fruit roll with natural color, but our local stores haven’t had the fruit rolls in several months. I definitely get very angry when my child gets so upset that she can’t have so many things that are often all that’s served at many things she attends.

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  6. Education

    Not a single scientific article cited, generalizations galore, and just using the words “general consensus among scientists”… Would I disagree with you? Probably not, if you had used any factual basis instead of just saying you’re a lawyer (with little to no science background) and saying that food dyes cause behavioral problems in SOME children then using a few very specific examples of non-scientist/psychologist parents who FEEL that their children are affected. If you have something important to say, make it intelligent and factual. Cite your sources. Otherwise you’re just fear mongering.

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  7. Joanne Holcomb

    What about appealing to cereal & candy manufacturers to use NUTRITION based coloring? I remember eating some delicious hard candy I purchased on Amazon that was sweetened, colored & flavored only with fruits, vegetables & herbs.

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  8. F, Lightle

    If this is the case, please provide specific information and recommendtions! I have no idea what to avoid specifically. …..

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