Artificial Food Dyes
There is a ton of information out there about what to feed our kids. We are preoccupied with important questions, like how can one sneak vegetables into cookies (more on that in another post…) and how much sugar is too much? Adding to this confusion is the question of artificial food colors (AFCs), their toxicity and possible impact on your child’s behavior.
Brightly colored food is appealing, especially to children, making dyes an attractive additive to the makers of goodies like jelly beans and other colorful treats. Artificial food colors are preferred over natural dyes by food manufacturers because they are less expensive and have better staying power when it comes to elements like heat and time. The concerning piece is that most common food colorings are made from items we do not see as traditionally edible, like coal tar and petroleum by-products.
The good news: we have gotten better; in 1900 there were over 80 different dyes used, and over the years we have banned many because of safety concerns. Currently, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has 9 approved artificial food dyes.
The challenging news: the FDA has increased the amount of certified allowable artificial food colors more than 5-fold since 1950 (12 mg/capita/day) to 2012 (68 mg/capita/day). While specific evidence is lacking, the potential concern is that children who are already physically smaller and tend to be attracted to more than their fair share of foods with artificial dyes are taking in too much of a potentially bad thing.
Over the past few decades, there have also been several studies that link food dyes to behavioral issues in children, particularly hyperactivity; although the range includes irritability, sleep disturbance, restlessness, and aggression. The amount of artificial food coloring consumed seems to be a key piece, studies show that children show more reactivity to higher doses versus lower doses.
The artificial food colors most connected to these behavioral issues are, Red No. 40, Yellow No. 5 and Yellow No. 6, which make up 90 percent of the food dyes on the market. These food colorings make an appearance in everything from sports drinks to mouthwashes to candy, cereals, condiments and medications.
Side note: whenever possible, we here at Pacific Crest Children’s Urgent Care are happy to try and help obtain dye-free medications and more than willing to work with any parent who wishes to avoid artificial dyes altogether.
The best news is that artificial colorings do not have nutritional value and many if not all food items can be substituted for dye-free alternatives. The upfront activity is label checking, but once you find your favorite dye-free substitutions, it’s in the bag!
Safeway and Fred Meyer’s both have natural food sections that carry a wide variety of items that tend toward the AFC-free. Whole Foods, recently purchased by Amazon, is working to lower the cost on many common foods, their 365 Everyday Value brand is competitively priced and designed to meet their quality standards. Trader Joe’s is another great option for finding reasonably priced foods that are free of artificial food colorings.
Good luck and let us know if you have further questions on this topic.
Batada, A., & Jacobson, M. F. (2016). Prevalence of artificial food colors in grocery store products marketed to children. Clinical Pediatrics, 55(12), 1113-9. doi: 10.1177/0009922816651621
Fulton, A.(2011, March 30). FDA probes link between food dyes, kids’ behavior. National Public Radio. Retrieved from https://www.npr.org/2011/03/30/134962888/fda-probes-link-between-food-dyes-kids-behavior
Stevens, L. J., Burgess, J. R., Stochelski, M. A., & Kuczek, T. (2013). Amounts of artificial food colors in commonly consumed beverages and potential behavioral implications for consumption in children. Clinical Pediatrics, 53(2), 133-40. doi: 10.1177/0009922813502849