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ADHD, Food Dyes, and Additives

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WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Patricia Quinn, MD

If your child has ADHD, you may be thinking about cutting dyes and other additives from their diet, in case it helps their ADHD symptoms.

Is it true? Will they eat foods without them? Before you give it a try, you should know a few things about the link between food colorings and ADHD.

Link Isn't Clear

The possible link dates back to the early 1970s, when San Francisco pediatrician and allergist Benjamin Feingold noted that hyperactive kids calmed down when they didn't eat any artificial colors, flavors, and preservatives.

Since then, several studies have tried to confirm the link. What they've found is that, although dyes don't cause ADHD, a small percentage of kids with ADHD do seem to be sensitive to the effects of food dyes and other additives.

There are still some questions. So far, most studies have been based on small numbers of children: in some cases, just 10 or 20 kids. Also, many of the children ate foods that had both dyes and other additives, making it hard to find the exact cause of their behaviors.

Researchers also aren’t sure exactly how artificial food colorings might impact ADHD symptoms. It could be that these substances affect children's brains. Or, some kids may be hypersensitive, having a kind of allergic reaction to dyes and additives, says Joel Nigg, PhD. He is a professor of psychiatry and behavioral neuroscience at Oregon Health & Science University and author of What Causes ADHD?  Many of the kids who are sensitive to dyes are also sensitive to other foods, like milk, wheat, and eggs.

Views Differ

Some parents say they have seen an improvement after eliminating food dyes and other additives from their children's diet.

The eating plan Nigg found to have the greatest effect on ADHD symptoms is the one Feingold introduced decades ago, which removes all artificial colors, flavors, and preservatives (including BHA and BHT).

It doesn't seem to work as well as medication. When Nigg looked at studies done on similar diets, he found that cutting out these additives worked one-third to one-sixth as well as as taking medications.

The European Union requires warning labels on foods made with the following dyes, based on a study done in 2007:

  • quinoline yellow (yellow #10)
  • ponceau 4R (not available in the U.S.)
  • allura red (red #40)
  • azorubine (not approved for food in the U.S.)
  • tartrazine (yellow #5)
  • sunset yellow  (yellow #6)

Those rules aren't in place in the U.S. In 2011, an FDA expert panel concluded there isn't enough evidence to prove food dyes cause hyperactivity in children.

If You Try a Dye-Free Diet

"One of the challenges is getting kids to like the diet," Nigg says.

If you want to try cutting out all foods made with dyes or other additives, Nigg recommends working with a nutritionist who understands ADHD. "Don't try this on your own, because there are too many ways to miss key nutrients," he says. 

You'll also need to read food labels to look for "any dye that has a number, like red #40 or yellow #5," says Laura J. Stevens. She is a research associate in Purdue University's nutrition science department and the author of 12 Effective Ways to Help Your ADD/ADHD Child

Try it for a few weeks. Note any changes in your child's behavior. Then you can start adding foods back into your child's diet, about one a week, and see if their symptoms return. 

"In most cases, you could narrow it down to three or four things your child can't eat," Nigg says.

There's a perk: Avoiding artificial colors means eating fewer processed foods, which could cut down on sugar and make your family's diet better, regardless of ADHD. "Foods that contain artificial colors, it's hard to find one that you would say has good nutrition," Stevens says.

Reviewed on June 25, 2013

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