Red Food Dye- Does it Really Affect Behavior?

Red Food Dye- Does it Really Affect Behavior?

In my younger years, back when I was blissfully unaware of the growing concern that food dye might cause hyperactivity in kids and allergic reactions in adults, I must admit I too was tempted by the electric reds, blues, yellows and greens of some of my favorite drinks or candies.

During the past 50 years, the amount of chemical dye used in foods has increased by a whopping 500%. Could it be one of the causes of the alarming rise in child behavioral problems, aggression and ADHD? 

Most of our generation turned out fine (we think), but in the last decade since these dyes have become so pervasive and in everything including processed foods and health and beauty products such as toothpastes, I decided that I wanted to avoid food dyes for myself and my family. But, when talking about this to friends and clients, I always get the look- you know the one- “oh she is a health freak and is denying her kids the best candy…” But I am confident, that avoiding artificial food dyes is extremely important. Anytime a client talks to me about the suggestion that her/his child being prescribed drugs for ADHD my first question is always- have you tried reducing refined sugar and eliminating food dyes in your diets? Before making the decision to use prescription drugs, I would strongly suggest attempting to making these relatively simple adjustments. In many cases, that may be all that is necessary. Then, if it doesn’t work after a month or so, you still have prescription medication as an option.

Before jumping to the conclusion of food allergies (food allergies are often misdiagnosed as reactions may be the the chemicals used to process the food, not the food itself), or putting your kids on medication, which might cause unwanted side effects, take a closer look into food dyes first.

The Research

The assertions that I am making here, aren’t merely gut feelings, these notions are gaining a lot of support and there is currently much research being done on the impact of food dyes. Dr. Eugene Arnold, Professor Emeritus of Psychiatry and Behavioral Health at Ohio State University and an expert on ADHD, and Dr Jennifer Lowery, a spokeswoman for the American Academy of Pediatrics and Chief of Toxicology and Environmental Health at Children’s Mercy Kansas City are two of the many experts speaking out against the prevalent use of food dyes in substances that we consume.

It’s Not Just Red

Red No. 40 is the most widely used of the nine FDA-approved artificial food colorings, and therefore takes the brunt of the blame- it has shown in lab studies to reduce reproductive success, lower brain weight, substantially decrease running wheel activity, which increase hyperactivity and indecision in rats.

Research has shown that Blue No 1, is able to cross the blood-brain barrier, yet its exact impacts on the brain are not thoroughly known.

In 2004 and 2007, groundbreaking studies out of Southhampton University in England found that food dyes, especially those mixed with the preservative sodium benzoate “dramatically increased hyperactivity in 3-year old and 8/9-year old children in the general population.” The randomized, double-blind studies were enough to prompt the British government to discourage food companies from using synthetic dyes in the EU, and the European Parlament to require a warning label on foods that states dyes “may have an adverse effect on activity and attention in children.” In fact, most EU countries have banned the use of synthetic dyes in all consumables including food, beverages, and beauty products.

According to Psychology Today and WebMd, which references the CDC, 11% of US kids are diagnosed with ADHD and according to EU reporting, the ADHD diagnosis ranges from 3-5% amongst member countries. That is a significant difference. The FDA however, does not agree that there is enough evidence to link hyperactivity to synthetic food dyes. Yes more research needs to be done, but in my mind, this is about education. There are no benefits to food dyes, so why consume them- they aren’t a risk worth taking! And, Food Dye Allergies are on the rise- to the tune of 15% increase year over year!

Symptoms of Food-Dye-Related Behavioral Problems

Food Dyes that Cause Child Behavioral Problems

So which food dyes should you be watching out for? While no petroleum-based food dye could possibly be considered healthy, these two food dyes have been particularly associated with child behavioral problems:

Red #40

Red dye #40 has been most commonly associated with aggressive and impulsive behavior in children. Tantrums, hitting, kicking and swearing are common reactions in children sensitive to this dye. According to research, parents whose children consumed any food with this dye experienced a sudden and violent change in personality. When the dye was removed, the behavioral problems disappeared.

Yellow #5

Yellow #5 is most commonly associated with insomnia, which can lead to behavioral problems. Hyperactivity and learning disabilities have also been associated with this food dye.

Aside from Red #40 and Yellow #5, there are dozens more food dyes that can contribute to child behavioral problems.

Sources of Food Dyes

So where are all of these behavior-altering food dyes coming from? Here is a short list of the common culprits:

  • Breakfast Cereals

  • Candy

  • Ice Cream

  • Fruit Juice

  • Gelatin Desserts

  • Soft Drinks

  • Medications

  • Toothpaste

How Do I Know if My Child’s Behavioral Problems are Food-Related?

The best way to tell if your child’s behavioral problems are related to food dyes is to eliminate all traces of foods, medication and toothpaste containing artificial dyes for a period of one month. Then (at your own risk), add a large quantity of food containing just one of the forbidden dyes (Red #40 or Blue #1) and wait for a reaction or change in behavior. Do this in a safe environment. close to medical help in case necessary, and consider consulting your physician prior to doing this experiment. Some people can have aggressive reactions to food dyes, up to and including anaphylactic response, be prepared.

Where Can I Find Safer Alternatives?

If you’re a parent or caregiver concerned with a child’s behavioral problems, it’s very important to become a label-reader. Schedule a couple of hours for your next visit to the grocery store. Turn those boxes of cereal and cans of soda over and read the ingredients. You’ll be amazed at the amount of artificial colors and preservatives in them. Or simple shop at stores that don’t use synthetic food dyes at all, such as Whole Foods.

Next, search for foods labeled “organic” or “natural”. There are plenty of foods that are flavored and colored with natural food dyes.

Changing a child’s diet may be a battle at first, but the switch from processed food to whole food will improve your child’s health for the better. And a healthy child is usually a happy child. If, after you’ve removed all food dyes from your child’s diet, behavioral problems still persist, another mental or physical condition could be to blame. Schedule a visit with your child’s pediatrician for further examination.

Nothing bad can come of removing synthetic food dyes from your family’s diet and health & beauty routine. Start reading labels and give it try, you will be healthier, happier and cleaner for it.


More complete list of some of the most dangerous color additives currently in use and their widely reported effects:

Blue #1 (Brilliant Blue) – found primarily in baked goods, beverages, and cereals. It caused kidney tumors in laboratory mice.

Blue #2 (Indigo Carmine) – colorant in candies, pet food, and other items. Shown to cause brain tumors in rats.

Green #3 (Fast Green) – found in many cosmetics, candy, and drugs. Increases tumors of the bladder and testes in male rats.

Red #3 (Erythrosine) – colors maraschino cherries, baked goods, and candy. Banned by the FDA for causing thyroid tumors when used in externally applied cosmetics and topical drugs, but still used in food that is consumed.

Red #40 (Allura Red) – the most widely used dye found in cereals, desserts, drugs, and cosmetics. Accelerates immune system tumors in mice and triggers allergic reactions and hyperactivity in children.

Yellow #5 (Tartrazine) – found in any number of baked goods, cereal, gelatin products, and dessert powders. Causes severe hypersensitivity and triggers hyperactivity disorders and other behavioral issues in children.

Yellow #6 (Sunset Yellow) – Used in beverages, desserts, gelatin, candy, and even sausage. Found to cause adrenal tumors and trigger severe hyperactivity in children.

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