Is Food Coloring The Reason For My Kid's Hyperactivity?

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Enticing to the eyes but poor in nutrition, petroleum-based synthetic food colors may cause allergies, skin problems, indigestion, vomiting, asthma, and even tumors. They have also been proved to bring about behavioral changes in children - irritability, hyperactivity, restlessness, insomnia, and impaired cognition. Natural colors derived from fruits and vegetables are healthier substitutes.

As you pick up a brightly colored lollipop for your child or a slice of rainbow colored pastry, you may never think twice about how the wonderful colors actually get created. Artificial food coloring or food dyes are synthesized from petroleum (earlier it was coal tar). Now, surely, this doesn’t sound like something you want in your food! Let’s take a closer look at the multi-hued food dyes and their possible health effects.

Eating With Our Eyes

Food companies know that how something looks is as important as how something tastes. It’s the bright colors and shapes that prompt you to choose one breakfast cereal over another or one ice cream over another. Artificial colors make the food more attractive, are cheaper than natural dyes, and more stable. And for as long as such dyes have existed, debates on their safety have also raged. Natural dyes and substitutes do exist but are not always commercially viable. While companies know these dyes don’t add any nutritional value, they haven’t yet been shown much scientific proof of the harmful effects on humans. Having said that, the commonly used dyes are known to have various side effects on humans, including allergies, skin problems, stomach aches, indigestion, vomiting, hives, asthma, hyperactivity, and even tumors.

Drawing The Line

Millions of pounds of food dyes are added to food products every year, making regulations and safety limits critical. The Center for Science in the Public Interest recently released a report on the risks associated with nine approved food dyes (covering blue, green, red, orange, yellow) and found health concerns.1 The report covers carcinogenic components, allergic reactions, and the carcinogenic effect of the substance on rodents. The results are alarming and suggest that the US Food and Drug Administration should take a page out of the European Union’s rulebooks and enforce much stricter controls. And this is not a new revelation. Similar studies some years back have also suggested that the nine currently approved US dyes raise concerns ranging from hypersensitivity to genotoxicity to carcinogenicity.2

Coloring Our Kids’ Meals

Color is one of the best ways to entice a child to eat. Parents of young children have many times suspected that the “sugar high” is not just due to the sugar consumed but also the other additives in the brightly colored treats. An Australian study confirmed this when they reported that on consuming synthetic food coloring, behavioral changes were observed in children. They tended to be more irritable, hyperactive, and restless and even had sleep issues. The tests were conducted at six different dose levels and increased dosage of food dye tartrazine was directly indicative of increased behavioral response.3

Another study on children already classified as hyperactive showed that their learning was further impaired when their diet was “colorful.” The effect was less on children not hyperactive in nature.4

Natural Way Out

Europe has shown the way by opting for many natural substitutes, given that these artificial dyes also possess no nutritional value. Companies can opt for safe food colorants that are processed by using real foods. The same lovely colors – blue, red, or orange can be obtained from blueberries, paprika, red cabbage, pumpkins, carrots, grapes, or beets. Nature is a riot of colors and it’s time we shift focus to safe and natural options rather than trying to set “permissible” limits of artificial dyes.

References   [ + ]

1. obylewski, Sarah, and Michael F. Jacobson. Food dyes: A rainbow of risks. Center for Science in the Public Interest, 2010.
2. Kobylewski, Sarah, and Michael F. Jacobson. “Toxicology of food dyes.” International journal of occupational and environmental health 18, no. 3 (2012): 220-246.
3. Rowe, Katherine S., and Kenneth J. Rowe. “Synthetic food coloring and behavior: a dose response effect in a double-blind, placebo-controlled, repeated-measures study.” The journal of pediatrics 125, no. 5 (1994): 691-698.
4. Swanson, James M., and Marcel Kinsbourne. “Food dyes impair performance of hyperactive children on a laboratory learning test.” Science 207, no. 4438 (1980): 1485-1487.

Disclaimer: The content is purely informative and educational in nature and should not be construed as medical advice. Please use the content only in consultation with an appropriate certified medical or healthcare professional.

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