ADHD and Food Dyes

I’m a big fan of M&M’s and used to have an M&M dispenser in my office. I would reward children with a handful of candy after  a particularly good session. That is until I learned about the association between ADHD and food dyes. Until fairly recently, I was pretty skeptical about the relationship between food and ADHD.  However, a couple of things came to my attention and I knew I simply had to learn more about this issue.  Not long ago a friend of mine from high school shared a post on facebook regarding her son, who was struggling with ADHD-like symptoms for years.  Someone suggested it may be due to an allergy to food dyes, which prompted her to do some research and to begin an elimination diet.  She reported a dramatic improvement, similar to what I often see when a child begins medication for ADHD.  After reading her post, I began recommending that my clients try an elimination diet as well.  While many clients did report improvement, I must admit that I stopped recommending it for no other reason than than I simply forgot.  Fast forward to March 30, 2011 when I learned that the FDA was holding hearings to determine if there is a link between food dyes and adverse behaviors.  The issue was getting a lot of attention in the media so I began educating myself.  Some of what I learned was truly shocking! For instance, did you know that the British Food Standards Agency and the European Food Safety Agency have imposed warning labels on foods that contain dyes?  So much so that some American-made products sold overseas no longer contain food dyes, while these same products still contain food dyes in the states!  Companies such as Kraft, Coca-Cola and Walmart have removed dyes from foods that they distribute in the UK! Mars has eliminated some or all of the dyes from its Starburst Chews, Skittles, and M&M’s in Britain, but not in the US. In the UK, McDonald’s vanilla syrup  for milkshakes, strawberry syrup for milk shakes, and strawberry sauce for sundaes are colored with caramelized sugar and caramel coloring, beetroot juice concentrate, and actual strawberries, respectively; however in the United States, the same foods are colored with Yellows 5 and 6, Red 40, and Red 40, respectively.It seems there must be something to this whole food dyes thing if this is the case. What exactly is the issue?

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For starters, most food dyes are petroleum derivatives and contain lead, mercury, and arsenic. There is absolutely NO nutritional value in these dyes. Food dyes are in more than just candy. They can also be found in bagels, pickles, BBQ sauce, ketchup, macaroni and cheese, beverages,  cheese, soft drinks, chips, crackers, gelatins, frozen desserts, breakfast cereals, and more.

The changes made overseas were prompted by a 2007 in-depth study known as the Southampton study.  Researchers found evidence of increased hyperactivity in children after they consumed a cocktail of artificial food colors and sodium benzoate, a preservative found in many candies and soft drinks. In this study of 153 three-year-olds and 144 eight-year-olds, the children’s families were asked to put them on a diet free from the additives used in the study. Over a six-week period the children were then given a drink each day which either contained one of two mixtures of food colours and benzoate preservative, or just fruit juice – with all the drinks looking and tasting identical.  Parents noticed a marked increase in hyperactivity- some within an hour after consumption. While some question the study as not all observers noted a significant change and it was difficult to determine which dye was the culprit, there was still enough compelling evidence to prompt legislative change. In July 2008, the EU decided that it would require manufacturers to label foods containing the six colors with the following warning: ‘May have an adverse effect on activity and attention in children.’”

After two days of hearings, the FDA did not come to the same conclusion. In a close 8 to 6 vote, the committee decided against warning labels and in a vote of 13-1, decided that additional studies are necessary to prove that the dyes cause hyperactivity in children who don’t have ADHD. However, the FDA did state that ‘For certain susceptible children with Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder and other problem behaviors, however, the data suggest that their condition may be exacerbated by exposure to a number of substances in food, including, but not limited to, synthetic color additives.’


RED #40 or ALLURA RED: The most widely used food dye in the U.S. Found in Frito-Lay products; some Yoplait products; JELL-O Gelatin desserts; Quaker Instant Oatmeal; Trix; Froot-Loops; Apple Jacks; some Pop-Tart products; Kid Cuisine Kung Fu Panda products; Oscar Mayer Lunchables products; Hostess Twinkies; some Pillsbury rolls and frostings; some Betty Crocker and Duncan Hines frostings; and more

RED #3 or CARMOISINE: Only found in a few products. Candy, popsicles, cake decoration and other baked goods, maraschino cherries

YELLOW #3 or TARTAZINE: The second most widely used food dye.  Found in Nabisco Cheese Nips Four Cheese; Frito-Lay Sun Chips Harvest Cheddar and other Frito-Lay products; some Hunt’s Snack Pack Pudding products; Lucky Charms; Eggo waffles and other waffle products; some Pop-Tarts products; various Kraft macaroni and cheese products; Betty Crocker Hamburger Helper and other products

YELLOW #5 or SUNSET YELLOW: The third most widely used food dye. Found in Frito-Lay Cheetos Flamin’ Hot Crunchy and other Frito-Lay products; Betty Crocker Fruit Roll-ups; some JELL-O gelatin deserts and instant puddings; Fruity Cheerios; Trix; some Eggo waffle products; some Kid Cuisine Kung Fu Panda products; some Kraft macaroni and cheese dinners; some Betty Crocker frostings; some M&M’s and Skittles candies; Sunkist Orange Soda; Fanta Orang

BLUE#1 or BRILLIANT BLUEFrito-Lay Sun Chips French Onion and other Frito-Lay products; some Yoplait products; some JELL-O dessert products; Fruity Cheerios; Trix; Froot-Loops; Apple Jacks; Quaker Cap’N Crunch’s Crunch Berries; some Pop-Tarts products; some Oscar Mayer Lunchables; Duncan Hines Whipped Frosting Chocolate; Edy’s ice cream products; Skittles candies; Jolly Ranchers Screaming Sours Soft & Chew Candy; Eclipse gum; Fanta Grape

BLUE #2 or INDIGOTINEFound in Froot-Loops; Post Fruity Pebbles; Pop-Tarts products; Duncan Hines Moist Deluxe Strawberry Supreme Premium Cake Mix; Betty Crocker Frosting Rich & Creamy Cherry; M&M’s Milk Chocolate Candies; M&M’s Milk Chocolate Peanut Candies; Wonka Nerds Grape/Strawberry; pet foods

GREEN #3 or FAST GREEN FCF Rarely used . Found in canned peas, vegetables, fish, desserts, cotton candy and other candy

Now what? The jury is still out on food dyes- at least in the United States.  Since they don’t add any nutritional value and there is a good chance they contribute to behavior problems, why not try eliminating dyes from your diet?  Commit to a 30-day diet without any artificial colorings — for both children and adults. Start by sweeping clean your kitchen cupboards, pantry, and refrigerator. Get the kids involved in this process and make it a family project. Then, when you go grocery shopping you can make it a game with the children.  Ask them to help you read the labels. Generally speaking, if you can’t pronounce it on the label, it’s probably best to not add it to your shopping cart.  I now recommend to all clients that I suspect might have ADHD, and have heard lots of positive feedback.  Would love to hear your feedback too-feel free to post comments!






  1. Thank you for telling your readers about the link between food dyes and ADHD. For the past 35 years the nonprofit Feingold Association of the US has been showing families how to find the foods they enjoy, but without petroleum-based dyes and other harmful additives. See for details on how to find good food in your supermarket.
    The Association also collects information on the scientific studies that have been conducted, and the research that has accumulated since the 1970s. Because there were many flaws in the early studies, the results seemed inconsistent. But since the amount of dyes used as a challenge was less than 10% of what a typical American child would consume in a day, this is not surprising.
    There are naturally-colored, naturally-flavored candies of all types available to families in the US; some can be purchased retail and some are available via mail order.
    The Feingold Association researchers brand name foods and publishes books listing thousands of acceptable brand name products of all types.
    You might not want to use M&Ms but there are natural alternatives that won’t cause children to flip out.

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