FDA Says Dyes Don't Cause Hyperactivity, but Is It Right?

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Do the blues and reds in processed foods make kids go crazy? The latest chapter in a decades-long debate.

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I've been waiting to see what the FDA panel did before commenting on this week's hearings on food dyes and hyperactivity in young children. 

According to reports from CNN and The New York Times, the panel decided—to do nothing. 

Research, says the FDA panel, is insufficient to conclude that food dyes cause hyperactivity. Despite much concern about this issue in Great Britain, the FDA will not put a warning label on foods that contain the dyes. 

Candy, Cheetos, and sodas that are brightly colored are perceived as tasting better than the gray alternatives. The food industry needs food dyes badly. But nobody else does.

This is déjà vu all over again. When I first became interested in nutrition in the mid-1970s, food dyes were a big issue. Hyperactivity in kids was a new thing. Ben Feingold, a physician in California, said that a diet devoid of food colors would help calm kids down. The Feingold Association still encourages that diet.

But scientific tests of the Feingold hypothesis produced mixed effects. In 1980, Science magazine published two reports of such tests. 

The first, by James M. Swanson and Marcel Kinsbourne (Science 1980; 207:1485-87), gave pills containing a mix of food additives to 40 children, 20 diagnosed as hyperactive and 20 not. The children diagnosed with hyperactivity reacted to the food additive challenge but the other children did not.

This study, however, was criticized for using pills, mixing additives, and evaluating the kids' behavior by methods that were controversial.

A second study (Weiss, et al. Science 1980; 207:1487-89) made a valiant effort to correct for those problems. It created two drinks that looked and tasted the same, one with a blend of seven food colors and one without. The study was carefully designed to be triple-blind. The drinks were formulated to look the same and neither the kids, parents, nor observers knew what the kids were drinking. The drinks were tested at different times on 22 kids.

The result? Twenty of the 22 kids showed no reaction to the dyes. One showed occasional reactions. 

But one child reacted to the dyes every time.

The interpretation? A small percentage of kids may react to food dyes.

That was pretty much the end of that except for petitions by the Center for Science in the Public Interest to get rid of food dyes.

There things rested until 2007 when a study in England revived the issue.

Food dyes have only one purpose: to sell junk foods. Candy, Cheetos, and sodas that are brightly colored are perceived as tasting better than the gray alternatives. The food industry needs food dyes badly.

But nobody else does. Parents of hyperactive kids can easily do their own experiment and see if removing food colors helps calm their kids down. 

Food dyes have no health benefits that I can think of. Kids don't need to be eating those foods anyway. Kids will not be harmed by avoiding food dyes.

It would be nice to have more conclusive research. In the meantime, read food labels!


Image: stevendepolo/flickr
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Marion Nestle is a professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University. She is the author of Food Politics, Safe Food, What to Eat, and Pet Food Politics. More

Nestle also holds appointments as Professor of Sociology at NYU and Visiting Professor of Nutritional Sciences at Cornell. She is the author of three prize-winning books: Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health (revised edition, 2007), Safe Food: The Politics of Food Safety (2003), and What to Eat (2006). Her most recent book is Feed Your Pet Right: The Authoritative Guide to Feeding Your Dog and Cat. She writes the Food Matters column for The San Francisco Chronicle and blogs almost daily at Food Politics.

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