Parents and teachers have been wondering for decades whether food dyes might undermine children’s concentration spans and make them hyperactive. Now the Food and Drug Administration is investigating whether such a link actually exists.

An FDA-advisory committee starts a two-day meeting today to determine whether food dyes are associated with hyperactivity, according to available data. The Committee will report to the FDA on Thursday and inform the agency whether it believes further studies on dyes should go ahead. The FDA may be advised to consider applying some additional labeling requirements on products that contain certain dyes.

The FDA-advisory committee only recommends – their conclusions are not binding. However, the FDA tends to go along with what they recommend.

According to the FDA, no compelling evidence linking food dyes to hyperactivity in the majority of children seems to exist. However, it accepts that there may be some susceptible children whose current behavioral and hyperactivity problems may be aggravated by food dyes and food additives.

Although most experts and health advocates tend to accept that food dyes do not appear to be the main factor in hyperactivity, many say that their effects on some susceptible children might be reason enough to ban them.

This meeting is a response to a petition filed by Center for Science in the Public Interest, an advocacy group which would like to see some dyes banned, including Yellow 5 and Red 40.

Michael F. Jacobson, executive director, Center for Science in the Public Interest, said:

“I’m glad that after many years of denial, the Food and Drug Administration is reviewing the evidence linking synthetic food dyes to behavioral problems in children. Red 40, Yellow 5, Yellow 6, and other dyes have no useful nutritional or preservative value; their only function is cosmetic. And by “cosmetic,” I mean that dyes are often used to make junk food more attractive to young children, or to simulate the presence of a healthful fruit or other natural ingredient. Surprisingly, even foods that aren’t particularly colorful – such as instant mashed potatoes or pickles – are dyed.

The evidence that these petrochemicals worsen some children’s behavior is convincing, and I hope that the FDA’s advisory committee will advise the agency to both require warning notices and encourage companies voluntarily to switch to safer natural colorings. (The FDA isn’t asking the committee about a ban.) Having brightly colored Froot Loops, Skittles, Mountain Dews, or pickles or anything else just isn’t worth putting any children at risk.

In Europe, a law requires most dyed foods (there are few) to bear a warning notice, which is a powerful incentive for food manufacturers not to use artificial dyes. Last I heard, Europe is surviving quite well. It is to the great shame of many U.S.-based food companies that they are marketing safer, naturally colored products in Europe but not in the United States.”

Many lay people and a number of scientists have noticed that ADHD (attention deficit hyperactive disorder) rates have increased in parallel to the amount of dyes added to foods over the last few decades, and wondered whether there may be a link.

The following seven artificial colorings are allowed in foods in the USA, as of 2007:

  • FD&C Blue No. 1 – Brilliant Blue FCF, E133 (blue shade)
  • FD&C Blue No. 2 – Indigotine, E132 (indigo shade)
  • FD&C Green No. 3 – Fast Green FCF, E143 (turquoise shade)
  • FD&C Red No. 40 – Allura Red AC, E129 (red shade)
  • FD&C Red No. 3 – Erythrosine, E127 (pink shade, commonly used in glacé cherries)
  • FD&C Yellow No. 5 – Tartrazine, E102 (yellow shade)
  • FD&C Yellow No. 6 – Sunset Yellow FCF, E110 (orange shade)

These dyes are allowed, but for specific limited applications:

  • Orange B (red shade) – only allowed in hot dog and sausage casings.
  • Citrus Red 2 (orange shade) – only allowed to color orange peels.

Written by Christian Nordqvist