What's all the "Buzz" About Food Colors and Hyperactivity?

Many of us can probably remember a time when we have had difficulty paying attention, sitting still, or focusing on a particular task. And, most of the time, after a good night’s rest or a moment of relaxation, we are able to refocus on the task at hand. However, for some, these behaviors are so persistent that they interfere with work or school or negatively impact everyday activities.

Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (AD/HD) is a neurobiological disorder characterized by impulsive behavior, inattention, and in some cases, hyperactivity. While the exact cause of AD/HD is unknown, experts agree that heredity plays an important role.  Medication and behavior modification are the two methods found through scientific research to be most effective in treating AD/HD. Yet, despite these proven treatments, conflicting information persists regarding the role of food and nutrition, particularly artificial food colors, as it relates to hyperactivity in children.

Background debate: Why food colors?

The debate surrounding food colors and hyperactivity began in the 1970s when Dr. Benjamin Feingold popularized his theory that food additives, including artificial food colors, artificial flavors and salicylates (a salt or ester of salicylic acid), exacerbated child hyperactivity. Dr. Feingold’s work was largely refuted in the scientific community due to flaws in the study methodology and the study’s inability to establish a causal link.

More recently, a study conducted by researchers at the University of Southampton (McCann, et al., 2007) reported a causal link between food colors and hyperactivity, reigniting the debate. A European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) expert panel evaluated the study and found that the results were inconsistent and could not be used as a basis for altering the current levels of food colors in Europe. Despite this, the UK Food Standards Agency (FSA) implemented a voluntary ban of the studied colors.

There are nine certified (FD&C) food colors approved for use in the U.S., which are closely regulated by the FDA. In addition to improving the visual appeal of food, food colors can provide several functions in food, such as to offset color loss due to exposure to light, air, temperature extremes, moisture and storage conditions; correct natural variations in color; and enhance colors that occur naturally.  In addition, food colors can enhance the appeal of mealtimes for populations with food disorders or aging individuals who may experience a loss of appetite due to a diminishing sense of taste and smell.  While certain foods containing colors, such as candy, desserts and sweetened beverages, should be enjoyed only occasionally, many nutrient-rich foods, including certain kinds of cheese, yogurt, and even some types of fresh fruits and fish, contain artificial food colors and can be consumed as part of a safe and healthful diet.

To address the issue in the U.S., FDA’s Food Advisory Committee held a public meeting in Silver Spring, MD on March 30-31, 2011. They were charged with considering the available research on the topic and advising FDA on what action, if any, should be taken to ensure consumer safety. Specifically, they were asked to consider five questions, including whether the existing research supports the conclusion of FDA’s recent evidence-based review that a causal relationship between artificial food colors and hyperactivity has not been established, and whether additional labeling, such as a warning statement, should be required on food and beverage products containing artificial food colors.

In addition to finding no causal relationship, FDA’s evidence-based review states that observed behavior changes do not appear to be due to any safety issue with the colors, but could be due to a genetic predisposition of some individuals to certain foods and ingredients, including but not limited to food colors.

After reviewing the evidence and hearing testimony from relevant parties on both sides of the debate, FDA's evidence-based review conclusion that a causal relationship between food colors and hyperactivity in children has not been established was upheld by the Committee, with 93 percent of the vote. In addition, a majority of the Committee opposed adding a warning label to products containing artificial colors. Nearly all Committee members felt that more studies should be conducted. The Committee’s conclusions will be shared with FDA; however, it is unclear what actions may be taken or changes made, if any, based on the information.

If parents or other consumers have concerns, they can avoid food colors by reading the ingredients label on food and beverage products. Likewise, science-based resources available online and in doctors’ offices offer helpful information about the safety and functionality of food colors. Some products containing natural colors or no coloring are also available. What works for one person may not work for another, so it’s important for those who are concerned about potential sensitivities and/or hyperactivity to talk to their child’s physician, a registered dietitian, and/or a certified allergist.

For more information on food colors and hyperactivity, including expert videos and Q&As, visit the Food Colors Hot Topics page on the IFIC Foundation website.