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Artificial colors and behavioral changes in children

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Larisa Klein

It is becoming increasingly difficult to find foods which are completely natural. This makes it that much more important that we know what types of artificial ingredients we ingest and how they interact with our chemistry. While it is very difficult to prove that any one particular chemical included in processed foods is damaging to our health, sometimes links can be found between them and an increase in negative side effects. Such is the case with food colorings. They had escaped close scrutiny for decades, but were eventually linked to behavioral changes in some children.

Food colorings were first approved for our food supply in 1931. They were originally made from coal tar, but are now made from petroleum products. Since then, Orange No. 1 was found to be toxic in the 1950’s and Red No. 2 was banned in 1976 as a carcinogen. The FDA is responsible for the safely of consumers, so finding toxicity associated with chemicals they’ve passed as safe puts them in a negative light. While it could not prove colorings to be bad for human health, the institution itself is somewhat protected from future findings by requiring the listing of artificial colors in the list of ingredients. This is similar to why a manufacturer would want to list any allergens as part of its product. (Parent Dish, 2011)

Pediatrician Benjamin Feingold was the first to bring attention to the possible link between food coloring and behavioral and health problems in children in the 1970’s. It marked the beginning of a debate long and passionate enough to cause the FDA to restudy the data on these seemingly innocent chemicals. However, showing causality between a substance and a health problem is difficult to do. For example, the first warnings about the health hazards of cigarette smoking were put forth by the Surgeon General in 1964, but it took 20 years to pass the law that requires cigarettes to carry their warning labels; this was an argument over chemicals which are much more dangerous. (

One particular study commissioned by the UK Food Standards Agency in 2007 studied the effects of artificial colors on children. The study did link food dyes and hyperactivity in children; this included colorings which are not used in the US. As a result, the European Parliament passed a law in 2008 which requires that foods containing these artificial dyes carry the warning label “may have an adverse effect on activity and attention in children." (Gleason, 2011)
Our country was unable to do the same. As expected, the FDA was unable to prove a connection between food colorings and altered behavior in children. However, it was able to state that based on their findings, "’certain susceptible children’ with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder may be exacerbated by exposure to ‘a number of substances in food, including, but not limited to, synthetic color additives.’" (Parent Dish, 2011)

Even such a loose statement was not received well by manufactures of these chemicals and foods containing them. Studies were countered with the argument that the studies have poor methodologies due to the difficulty of studying children. In addition, other eating habits and lack of exercise could have also contributed to these behaviors. Scientists and food manufacturers believe these warning labels are unnecessary. But groups like CSPI believe that even if only some children are affected, that is still enough reason for such warnings. It was their stand that at the very least parents should be aware of the possibility of the negative side effects. (Gleason, 2011)

Ironically, foods with the largest amounts of artificial colorings are foods which are largely consumed by children. Cereals, Jell-O gelatin snacks, Kraft Macaroni and Cheese, Cheetos, and many such fun colored foods are targeted at and loved by children. Sadly, these foods should be nowhere near any child regardless of whether they contain artificial colorings. The addition of any chemical to make the unhealthy food even more attractive to children makes the act even less ethical. But since studies on children are unethical and difficult to carry out, we will never truly know whether or how these chemicals affect them. (Parent Dish, 2011)

The reason artificial colors are being used over natural dyes is that they are cheap and bright. One simply could not get such colors from natural sources. A main counterpoint of food chemists for consulting firms such as Corvus Blue, is that chemical dyes are studied in depth and we know their effects, but “little is known about the effects of the amount of spinach it would take to color one M&M green”. (Gleason, 2011)

The good news is that stores like Whole Foods Market and Trader Joe’s do not carry foods made with artificial food colorings. In addition, the market is somewhat changing. Kraft Foods, for example, is beginning to manufacture foods free of dyes. They include organic white macaroni and cheese and Kool Aid invisible. (Gleason, 2011)
Why do we need bright green M&Ms? Is chocolate simply not palatable enough without the colorful coating? Aren’t carrots, strawberries, grapes, colorful enough? Are chocolate and orange powdered foods what we should be feeding our children? Why are we getting our children addicted to sugars and toxic chemicals from such an early age? I have a sneaking suspicion that convenience has something to do with it, but some studies would shed a more clear light on the matter.


Artificial Food Colorings Come Under Scrutiny by Federal Government. Parentidsh.
(2011, March). Retrieved from on 7/5/2014. Document

From the First to the Last Ash.

Gleason, S. Artificial Food Dyes Scrutinized by FDA. Wall Street Journal. (2011, March)
Retrieved from on 7/5/2014. Document

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