Why Do I Avoid Artificial Food Dyes?

The idea that artificial food dyes may cause hyperactive behavior in children isn’t a new concept. It’s been debated for decades, and is a principle of the Feingold diet. Although I don’t completely “ban” anything, I do not regularly purchase anything that contains artificial flavors, colors, sweeteners or high fructose corn syrup. (You may remember my post with ideas for dye-free Valentine’s Day treats.)

Some don’t believe there is any link at all, but for us, the proof is in the (artificially colored) pudding, so to speak. We had noticed the link long before a child psychiatrist suggested it to us, and while artificial sugar and colorings may aggravate the behavior in children predisposed to hyperactivity, it can sometimes manifest in any child.

For me, I really didn’t need a study to encourage me to purchase alternatives (Stretch Island fruit leather vs. fruit roll ups, foods sweetened with cane sugar or fruit juice, and naturally colored) but I thought I would share the information I have found on the subject.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) has stated that food dyes are a health risk, and has urged the FDA to ban Red 40, Yellow 5 and Yellow 6.

“These synthetic chemicals do absolutely nothing to improve the nutritional quality or safety of foods, but trigger behavior problems in children and, possibly, cancer in anybody,” said CSPI executive director Michael Jacobson, co-author of the report. “The Food and Drug Administration should ban dyes, which would force industry to color foods with real food ingredients, not toxic petrochemicals.”

An FDA study found no conclusive evidence that food dyes cause hyperactivity in the majority of children, but suggests that some kids with ADHD may be particularly sensitive. However, major, double blind studies find a definite link, and it’s noted that parental reporting is a far more accurate measure of a child’s behavior than clinical reporting.

So, why are artificial foods dyes so widely used? Well, they’re cheap. There are plenty of natural food dyes available, but they are more expensive, and less stable.

Some natural food colorings include:

  • Caramel coloring made from caramelized sugar
  • Annatto made from the seed of the achiote.
  • Chlorophyllin made from chlorella algae
  • Cochineal derived from the cochineal insect, Dactylopius coccus
  • Betanin extracted from beets
  • Turmeric
  • Saffron
  • Paprika
  • Lycopene
  • Elderberry juice
  • Pandan
  • Butterfly pea

The other issue with natural food dyes is the potential for allergic reactions, and that they are not all vegan and/or kosher. Recently Starbucks was in the news for using Cochineal in their strawberry drinks. Besides the “ick” factor, vegan customers were upset with its use. They have since announced that they are switching to lycopene to color pink items.

Personally, I would prefer to drink something colored with Cochineal than Red #40 (ingredients: 2-naphthalenesulfonic acid, 6-hydroxy-5-((2-methoxy-5-methyl-4-sulfophenyl)azo)-, disodium salt, and disodium 6-hydroxy-5-((2-methoxy-5-methyl-4-sulfophenyl)azo)-2-naphthalenesulfonate), but I know not everyone feels that way. The best way to avoid artificial ingredients of course is to eat only whole foods you prepare yourself, and avoid packaged or processed foods entirely. I know it’s possible; people do it, and I commend them for that. In our family, I want the ability to buy prepackaged items on occasion, and the selection of natural items where I shop is both limited and expensive.

Norway banned the use of synthetic colorants in foods in 1978 due to the possible risk for hypersensitivity, as well as the fact that they are simply not necessary. A representative of the Action on Additives campaign group called artificial colorings “utterly unnecessary” following a double blind study in the UK, in which researchers found that drinks with the highest level of additives had a “significantly adverse” effect on behavior. Pages 9-11 of this PDF from www.food.gov.uk has great information on expert opinions about the research, and the rest of the document has references and excellent information.

While I am well aware that natural does not automatically mean something is safe, or harmless, when all other things are equal (benefits, risks), I would choose the natural option over the processed, manufactured one.

Have you noticed a link between your child’s diet and his behavior?


Fitteds and Pockets and Snappis, oh my!





  1. 1

    thanks. we now try and limit red 40 specifically in our daughter. it seems to really annoy her. thanks for listing what ‘caramel color’ is. I didn’t know, and it makes me feel better about offering a root beer or cola instead of a red/orange drink that has red 40 in it.

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