ADHD, Food Dyes, and Additives

From the WebMD Archives

Are you thinking about cutting dyes and other additives from your child’s diet to try to improve ADHD symptoms?

It can be a challenge. Will it work? Will your child even eat the foods that are part of his new diet? Before you give it a try, you should know a few things about the link between food colorings and ADHD.

A 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 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 affect 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, professor of psychiatry, pediatrics, 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.

Additives vs. Medications

Some parents say they have seen an improvement after cutting 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. It removes all artificial colors, flavors, and preservatives.

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 taking medications.

Continued

Ingredients People Watch Out For

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, 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.

WebMD Feature Reviewed by Smitha Bhandari, MD on May 25, 2015

Sources

SOURCES:

Weiss, B. Environmental Health Perspectives, January 2012.

Joel Nigg, PhD, professor of psychiatry, pediatrics, and behavioral neuroscience, Oregon Health and Science University. 

Nigg, J. Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, January 2012.

McCann, D. The Lancet, November 2007.

FDA: "Background document for the food advisory committee: Certified color additives in food and possible association with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder in children."

Laura J. Stevens, research associate, nutrition department, Purdue University; author, 12 Effective Ways to Help Your ADD/ADHD Child.

Stevens, L. Nutrition Reviews, May 2013.

Center for Science in the Public Interest: "A Parent's Guide to Diet, ADHD, & Behavior."

© 2013 WebMD, LLC. All rights reserved.

Pagination