Kids and food dyes: Should I be concerned?

For years, experts have encouraged children to “eat the colors of the rainbow” for a balanced, healthy diet. Imagine juicy red strawberries, sweet yellow bananas, and crunchy orange carrots, just to name a few examples. But what happens when those colors come from Red 40 and Yellow #5? Are your children safe?

Year after year, it seems that I get an increasing number of questions from parents concerned about the use of artificial colors and dyes. While they might make your child’s favorite cereal or drink more appealing, a growing body of evidence is continuing to examine the potential association between artificial food dyes and several childhood health concerns.

What does the current research actually tell us?  Though anecdotal parent experience and some evidence might disagree, the direct relationships between the use of food dyes and conditions like food allergies, hyperactivity, and ADHD are still inconclusive. Studies that have shown links between ADHD and food dyes have been criticized for small number of sample patients, or the use of old diagnostic evaluation criteria.

So what’s all the fuss about?  In the United States, the Food and Drug Administration is the agency that regulates the safety of the additives in our food supply, including food colorings.  While food dye safety concerns have been around for decades, the elimination of specific dyes (i.e. Yellow #5) in Europe and the United Kingdom but not in the U.S. has caused increased controversy. According to a FDA website, the current food dyes have been approved after rigorous scientific testing. However, in 2010, the FDA did acknowledge that food additives, including dyes “may exacerbate hyperactivity in some susceptible children.” 

While food dyes can be found into everything from applesauce to yogurt, what should a concerned parent do?  

1. Drop the dyes.  Though the research may not show strong or conclusive evidence about the relationship between food dye and your child’s health, many foods with added colors are processed foods that can contain little nutritional value. Products marketed to kids including cereals, beverages, and even foods like waffles or fruit yogurts are often mixed with additional sugars that can add excess calories to their meals. 

2. Read the label. Here’s a place where you really can’t judge a book by its cover. Food additives aren’t always bright yellow or bold blue. Sometimes these food colorings are much more subtle which can confuse a parent’s view of the nutritional value of the product.  That “multigrain” cereal might have added brown colors to make it appear more wholesome, or canned and pickled vegetables can have green coloring added to make them appear less processed. How can you tell?  Look at the ingredients list, particularly the last few lines to check for the additives and colors. 

3. Take a stance. If you are concerned about colors and additives in your food supply, make your voice heard, because the big manufacturing companies are listening.  In 2013, a campaign started by two food bloggers encouraged Kraft to remove the food dyes from their famous Macaroni and Cheese.  After a petition and a social media campaign, Kraft heard these concerns, and made the adjustment. 

The lesson here? Even though the FDA might not consider food dyes safe for your child, there is nothing unhealthy about trying to avoid them. It’s your right as a parent to choose what you feel is safest for your child, and speak up to let others know.

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