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Are Food Dyes Safe for Children with ADHD?

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Studies on food dyes and ADHD have been largely inconclusive, but food dyes are under scrutiny once more after Kraft Foods announce it was removing suspect dyes from its macaroni and cheese. Find out more about the research below.

Over the years, food dyes have received varying amounts of criticism from the health community. Studies from the 1970s suggested a link between added chemical foods dyes and hyperactivity in children, but studies in the following decades did not find a strong correlation between dyes and hyperactivity.

However, with Kraft recently removing chemical dyes from their macaroni and cheese and replacing it with natural food dyes, chemical food dyes are in the spotlight once more. And this time, there may be scientific backing that indicates that food dyes are responsible for some behavior problems in a select group of children.

Read more about this new finding below.

Kraft’s Bold Move

Kraft announced in April 2015 that it will be removing all chemical dyes from its macaroni and cheese products by January 2016. Kraft is specifically focusing on two suspect dyes, yellow number 5 and yellow number 6. Kraft will replace the dyes with natural yellow-colored ingredients, such as paprika, annatto, and turmeric.

According to a company statement, Kraft is removing the dyes due to customer demand, not because of any potential link to hyperactivity in children. The company simply states that it is removing dyes to please its customer base rather than any potential hyperactivity risk.

However, recent studies on food dyes and ADHD may be a contributing factor to the company’s decision.

Recent Food Dye Studies

The original studies linking food dyes to hyperactivity problems occurred in the 1970s and were conducted on a small scale. These studies indicated that dyes may have an effect on a child’s behavior. However, later studies did not prove a clear link to hyperactivity, and the official FDA stance is that food dyes do not cause behavior problems in children.

However, a study from 2007 conducted by UK researchers found that both artificial colors and sodium benzoate increased hyperactivity in children. This link was thought to be strong enough that the European Union now requires food labels to state that artificial dyes may contribute to behavior problems in kids.

The EU label reads that artificial dyes “"may have an adverse effect on activity and attention in children." The FDA reviewed the information in 2011 but determined there was not sufficient evidence to create a similar label in the United States. However, the FDA did state that further research was necessary.

In 2012, a meta-analysis of numerous studies on ADHD and food dyes found that there is a strong link between behavior and food dyes. For a small group of children, the effect seems to be more extreme than in most children, but all children studied did have some behavior changes after eating food dyes.

Lead researcher Dr. Joel Nigg, professor of psychiatry, behavioral neuroscience, and pediatrics at Oregon Health & Science University stated that even with a weak link, the data should not be ignored. "The literature here is so sparse that on the one hand, you can sympathize with those who want to take a wait-and-see attitude. But on the other hand, when we do look at the literature we have, it's surprising that we do see effects that seem to be real," he said in a statement. "Do you want to take a chance that these initial studies are wrong and put kids at risk or do you want to take a chance that they're right? We have to work on the data we have."

The study researchers found that about 8 percent of children studied with ADHD had severe behavioral reactions to food dyes, while most of the other children had mild reactions. The study authors also stated that some of the benefits could come from removing all processed foods from the diet, not just from removing artificial dyes.

Is Any Amount of Dye Safe? 

Even though the FDA states that artificial dyes are safe, they do regulate the amount of dye that is considered safe. Yellow dyes 5 and 6 are declared safe if the daily intake level is five milligrams per kilogram of body weight per day for Yellow No. 5 and 3.75 milligrams per kilogram of body weight per day for Yellow No. 6.

In April 2015, a study published in Clinical Pediatrics examined just how much dyes are in typical food servings and if the dye amounts are safe when eaten by children. The study researchers found that Kraft macaroni and cheese contained about 17.6 milligrams of dye per 1-cup serving. A child who weighs 65 pounds eating one serving of Kraft macaroni offers about a fifth of the FDA-approved daily dye intake.

However, dyes from other foods also contribute to the dye intake. It is possible for a child to consume more than the recommended intake, particularly during the toddler years.

ADHD and Food Dyes

Since food dyes do not have a strong effect on all children with ADHD, the best way to determine if your child is sensitive to food dyes is by keeping a food log. Note all foods consumed by your child, the amount of dye in each food, and any effects on your child over a week-long period.

An elimination diet can also be used to determine if any particular foods are linked with behavior problems in your child. In general, it is only processed, junk foods that contain artificial food coloring, and the removal of junk food will benefit any adult or child, whether they have ADHD or not.

According to the Mayo Clinic, the following food dyes have the strongest link with ADHD symptoms:

Harmful Food Additives for ADHD
  • Sodium benzoate
  • FD&C Yellow No. 6 (sunset yellow)
  • D&C Yellow No. 10 (quinoline yellow)
  • FD&C Yellow No. 5 (tartrazine)
  • FD&C Red No. 40 (allura red)

Other Natural Ways to Reduce ADHD Symptoms

In addition to some children with ADHD having a reaction to food dyes and other chemical additives, many children with ADHD have vitamin or mineral deficiencies. Increasing the vitamin intake of a child with ADHD may help reduce some of the attention or behavior problems commonly seen in those children. These changes will not “cure” ADHD, but may help control some of the symptoms that make it a challenge for children with ADHD to fit in and concentrate on school and other tasks.

Parents can try making the following natural changes to reduce symptoms of ADHD in their children:


In some children with ADHD, their digestive tract does not function optimally, resulting in difficulties absorbing vital nutrients. This can cause some symptoms of ADHD. A study cited by Psychology Today found that all 75 children with ADHD in the study group had an imbalance of harmful bacteria in their intestines. Offering a daily probiotic to a child with ADHD may have a positive effect on reducing the symptoms of ADHD and other mental disorders.


As children with ADHD are often deficient in vital nutrients, they may benefit from additional supplement intake. Numerous studies have indicated that deficiencies in vitamins can make symptoms of ADHD worse. While there are many vitamins and minerals that have an effect on ADHD symptoms, Healthline suggests that supplements in zinc, magnesium, vitamin B6, and l-carnitine may have the most beneficial effect.

However, effects will vary depending on your child’s unique body chemistry. Ask your doctor to check for any nutrient deficiencies and supplement with those until levels normalize. Many children with ADHD also show symptom improvement after supplementing with fish oil.

Supplements that Benefit ADHD 

Diet Changes

Junk food is bad for everyone but it may be particularly bad for children with ADHD who may have a harder time absorbing nutrients from any source. Children with ADHD should be exposed to a wide variety of nutrients from vegetables, fruit, meat, whole grains, and healthy sources of pasture-raised dairy. Sugar and junk food should be limited.


Exercise is beneficial for mental health, overall health, and possibly may help alleviate some symptoms of ADHD. Children with ADHD who are given focused exercise goals may be better able to control their impulses elsewhere. Studies suggest that exercises such as yoga and tai chi may be most beneficial for children with ADHD.

Physical Therapy

Physical therapy, such as massage, has been shown to be effective for children with ADHD. In one study on teen boys with ADHD, daily massage for 15 minutes a day was able to reduce symptoms of ADHD and improve their concentration.

Behavioral Therapy

Behavioral therapy is extremely important for children with ADHD and their families. Behavior therapy helps equip ADHD families with the tools they need to manage the symptoms of ADHD in a constructive way, such as hyperactivity, lack of concentration, mood swings, and emotional melt-downs.

Restricted Diet

Some children with ADHD may have food allergies or sensitivities that may their symptoms worse. Common culprits aside from food dyes and chemical additives include sugar, caffeine, dairy, wheat, gluten, eggs, or foods that contain salicylates.

Salicylate Containing Foods
  • Berries
  • Apples
  • Grapes
  • Oranges
  • Peaches
  • Chili powder
  • Tomatoes
  • Plums

Food Dyes May Not Be Safe for Kids

According to neuroscientists and recent food dye studies, the blanket statement that all food dyes are safe may be premature. Scientists indicate there is some link between food dyes and behavior problems, and in about 8 percent of children, the link is extremely strong. Since most chemical food dyes are present in junk food, parents of children with ADHD should aim to avoid junk food as much as possible to help their children manage ADHD symptoms in a safe and healthy way.

As more research is conducted on food dyes, it may be that other companies reject chemical dyes in favor of natural dyes like Kraft. Until that day, parents of children with ADHD should take steps to prevent large quantities of dyes in their child’s diet. Combined with other natural treatments, such as supplements and exercise, this will help alleviate some symptoms of ADHD without medication.





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