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ADHD, Food Dyes, and Additives

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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.

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Reviewed on June 25, 2013

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