Food Colors and Your Kids

You wouldn’t feed your children bugs or petroleum, but food colors can include these ingredients. More concerning, there have been studies that suggest that food coloring can lead to behavior problems in children, including a large study from the UK. British law banned artificial colors, and the Center for Science in the Public Interest asked the FDA to follow suit. Should you keep food colors away from your children?

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved nine synthetic food colors for use in foods and beverages marketed to children. These are FD&C Blue No. 1, FD&C Blue No. 1, Orange B, FD&C Red No. 40, FD&C Yellow No. 5, FD&C Yellow No. 6, Citrus Red No. 2, FD&C Green No. 3, and Caramel Color III. They also have approved many natural color sources, including saffron, beets, cochineal beetles, and many more plant, animal, and mineral sources. 

Should you worry?

The FDA approves food colors for specific uses. There is, for example, one coloring that can only be used for the skin of oranges and another that is only used for sausages. The regulations specify the maximum amounts that can be used. Natural colors, like the red from beets, have some less-strict guidelines, but all food colors must be approved by the FDA before they can be used. 

The FDA uses extensive research to determine whether an additive is safe. You can feel confident that FDA-approved colorings will not cause injuries or illness. The evidence that food colors affect kids’ behavior is inconclusive and controversial. There are many people who believe this, from their own experience or from studies, but no connection has been proven. 

Some of the questions on this topic are complex and hard to figure out. For example, a child who acts up after eating Froot Loops could be reacting to the sugar in the cereal, not the food colors. A recent California study found that they saw more ADHD in low-income families, which they attributed to higher exposure to food colors. Again, there could be more variables in play. Officially, the FDA says that “certain children may be sensitive to them.”

What can you do?

By requiring that food colors be listed on nutrition labels, the FDA makes sure that parents can tell whether a food contains food colors or not. This allows you to decide for yourself and your family whether you need to avoid food colors.

You can try an elimination diet. This means strictly avoiding food colors for a couple of weeks and carefully keeping track of your child’s behavior during this time. Keep track for a couple of weeks afterward as you reintroduce food colorings. This allows you to determine whether food colors make a real difference in your child’s behavior or not. 

The FDA also recommends that you talk with your pediatrician if you are not sure what decision to make.