Food Coloring and Mental Health

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Dr. Randi Fredricks, Ph.D. is a therapist, researcher and author with a Ph.D. in Psychology and a Doctorate in Naturopathy. Dr. Fredricks works ...Read More

In the United States, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) permits nine artificial food colorings (AFCs) in the food supply. Red 40, Yellow 5, and Yellow 6 are the three most widely used.

Since the early 1970s, researchers have suggested that these additives contributed to behavioral problems in children. Some studies have labeled these substances “neurotoxic chemicals” and point to them as agents aggravating mental health problems, most notably attention disorders. Research found academic performance increased and disciplinary problems decreased in student populations with attention disorders when artificial ingredients, including AFCs, were eliminated from school food programs.


The amount of AFCs allowed by the FDA has increased five-fold; from 12 mg/capita/d in 1950 to 62 mg/capita/d in 2010. In 2011, the FDA cited research that indicated AFCs cause behavioral problems in some children, but there was no change in policy. Due to public awareness, a number of companies removed AFCs from a portion of their foods. These companies included Kraft, General Mills, Frito-Lay, and Pepperidge Farm. Since 2010, the United Kingdom and the European Union have required warning labels on most foods with AFCs, which effectively eliminated their use.

A new study from Purdue University, published in Clinical Pediatrics in April, was the first of its kind to measure the amount of AFCs in processed foods and beverages. Researcher concluded that the levels being consumed by children in the U.S. were considerably higher than previously thought. As an example of their findings in common foods, the researchers discovered that popular breakfast cereals had up to 41 milligrams of AFCs. Candy had up to 33.3 mg per serving and beverages had to 52.3 mg. Behavioral tests found as little as 30 mg can cause adverse reactions. The research conducted in the 1970s and 1980s that found as association between AFCs and behavioral problems gave children around 26 mg servings.

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One of the first scientists to study the effects of AFCs in children was Benjamin Feingold. In 1973, Feingold, a pediatric allergist from California, proposed that AFCs, artificial flavors and salicylates caused hyperactivity in children, particularly those with a genetic predisposition. To treat or prevent this condition, Feingold suggested a diet that was free of such chemicals. Through the 1970s, Feingold published a series of studies in which he claimed that a diet free of these agents results in a remission of symptoms in 30 to 50% of children diagnosed as hyperactive.

A number of studies have suggested that attention disorders may be related to food allergies. A low-allergen diet, also known as an elimination diet or a hypoallergenic diet, is often recommended for people with suspected food allergies to find out if avoiding foods that commonly trigger allergies will provide relief from symptoms. The low-allergen diet eliminates foods and food additives considered to be common allergens, such food coloring as well as wheat, dairy, eggs, corn, soy, citrus fruits, nuts, peanuts, tomatoes, preservatives, coffee, and chocolate.

The low-allergen diet is not a treatment for people with food allergies. Rather, it is a diagnostic tool used to help discover which foods a person is allergic or sensitive to. Unlike diets that are permanent change, the low-allergen diet is maintained only until a reaction to a food or foods has been diagnosed or ruled out. For parents concerned that AFCs may be affecting their children, the Feingold diet or hypoallergenic diet may be the best way to find out.


Feingold, B.F. (1975). Hyperkinesis and learning disabilities linked to artificial food flavors and colors. Am J Nurs,75(5):797-803.

McCann, D., et al. (2007). Food additives and hyperactive behaviour in 3-year-old and 8/9-year-old children in the community: a randomised, double-blinded, placebo-controlled trial. Lancet, Nov 3;370(9598): 1560-7. doi: 10.1016/S0140-6736(07)61306-3

Schoenthaler, S.J., Doraz, W.E., Wakefield, J.A. (1986). The impact of a low food additive and sucrose diet on academic performance in 803 New York City public Schools. Int J Biosocial Research, 8(2): 185-95.

Stevens, L.J., Burgess, J.R., Stochelski, M.A., Thomas Kuczek, T. (2014). Amounts of Artificial Food Dyes and Added Sugars in Foods and Sweets Commonly Consumed by Children. Clinical Pediatrics, Apr 24, doi: 10.1177/0009922814530803

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