Food Dyes and Behavior Problems — Fact or Fiction?

Food Dyes and Behavior Problems — Fact or Fiction?

By Dr. Court Vreeland

Does that store-made red frosted cupcake taste better than the unfrosted cupcake made from scratch at home? Maybe, but the red food dye in the frosting may not be good for you or your family.

Health groups have been calling for the removal of food dyes from the market for years because of links to allergies, hyperactivity in children, and cancer, just to name a few objections. The food industry uses them for one sole purpose: to make food look more appealing. We’re not even talking about flavor enhancers here (which have their own set of problems). Food dyes don’t make food taste better and have no nutritional value to them whatsoever. They are nothing more than chemicals used to make us think our food is going to taste better.

The link between food additives and hyperactivity in children is not a new one. In the 1970s, allergist Benjamin Feingold, MD proposed the Feingold Diet that removed all additives from the diet to combat hyperactivity. It has been used by many parents with success.

A more recent study conducted in Britain showed that elimination of food additives improved behavior and symptoms of hyperactivity as observed by parents.  The symptoms returned once the dyes were added back in. Researchers concluded that if the current 15 percent of children thought to have hyperactivity-related behavior problems were to go on an additive-free diet, the prevalence could be reduced to 6 percent. Another study — randomized, double-blinded and placebo controlled — concluded that artificial colors or a sodium benzoate preservative (or both) in the diet resulted in increased hyperactivity in 3-year-old and 8- to 9-year-old children in the general population. A quick check of the government’s website ( and you will find hundreds of studies that come to the same conclusion. 

Food dyes are found in many foods, but the overwhelming majority is in processed foods that are targeted to children. This is problematic because children are more likely to be affected by these dyes than adults (children consume more dye per unit of body weight than adults). What’s more, children today are exposed to levels much higher than children 50 to 60 years ago. According to the FDA, production of food dye per capita amounted to 12 mg in 1955, 32 mg in 1975, and 47 mg in 1998, a fourfold increase over four decades. Actual exposure levels are hard to determine from child to child and the studies are inconsistent. This is disturbing because no one really knows how much children are being exposed to.

In terms of long-term safety research, we have limited information. No study conducted has lasted more than two years. Almost all of the studies conducted have been done by food manufacturing companies, so conflict of interest may be a problem. And when FDA determined its “acceptable level” standards it did not take into account children. It based its finding on how these dyes might affect adults — which says nothing of how they could affect children. 

In my experience, getting dyes out of the diet is an important step in improving behavior in children. Not all children will respond, however; the mechanism of their hyperactivity may not be related to food dye sensitivity.

The best advice is to nourish your child with the most natural foods possible. Shop around the edges of the grocery store where you’ll find fruits, vegetables, nuts and meats. Should you need to enter those middle aisles, pick the snacks that are naturally colored and low in sugar. (There are many dyes that are approved for use in our diets.) Doing this just may improve your child’s behavior, and make life a home a little simpler.    

Dr. Court Vreeland is a chiropractor specializing in functional neurology and nutrition. For more information, visit

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