Food Color Additives and ADHD: Is There a Link?

By Jill Weisenberger, MS, RDN, CDE, FAND
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To entice consumers into buying their products, food manufacturers sometimes use color additives to enhance naturally-occurring colors or to make food more appetizing or simply more fun to eat. But do food colors do more than color food? One commonly held notion by some parents is that color additives cause behavioral problems in their children or add to the problems associated with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

"Scientists have been studying the relationship between food dyes and ADHD for years," says Heather Mangieri, MS, RDN, spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and mom to a child with both autism and attention deficit disorder. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates the use of both natural and artificial food colorings. Before granting approval, "the FDA considers the composition of the substance, how much is typically consumed, any immediate or long-term health effects and safety factors," she explains. In 2011 after reviewing available data, an advisory committee to the FDA concluded that even though there was no clear indication that artificial food color additives caused hyperactivity or other behavioral problems in kids, there was some research to suggest that some children with ADHD may have an intolerance to compounds in foods that increase their behavior problems.

A recent analysis of 34 research studies came to similar conclusions, suggesting that artificial food colors affect about eight percent of children with ADHD. Eliminating them from the diet had a small, but significant effect on ADHD symptoms, explains Mangieri. More research is necessary to determine who might benefit from dietary changes and which foods or ingredients should be avoided.

"The biggest problem with diets that eliminate a variety of foods is that they may unnecessarily remove nutritious foods from the diet," says Sally Hara, MS, RD, CSSD, CDE and mom of a child with ADHD. Sometimes parents misidentify the culprit and remove more foods than necessary. "Care must be taken to make sure the diet is nutritionally balanced," she adds. Working with a registered dietitian nutritionist who is experienced with children's feeding challenges and elimination diets can help parents pinpoint the problem foods while maximizing nutrient-dense foods, says Hara.

To avoid a potential backlash when favorite foods are taken away, Jill Castle, MS, RDN, co-author of Fearless Feeding: How to Raise Healthy Eaters from High Chair to High School, recommends focusing on adding nutritious foods rather than taking an "avoid this" approach. Focus on whole foods. Include fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, cereals and fish, says Castle. And work with your registered dietitian nutritionist and pediatrician to monitor your child's growth and make sure it stays on track.

Finally, make dietary changes a family affair, urges Mangieri. Prepare the entire family. "It's important to make sure the child doesn't feel like he is different or as if he is being punished with a special diet," she says.

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