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A number of people believe that artificial dyes in food are contributing to rising rates of ADHD in children.

Do food dyes cause ADHD?

Some studies have suggested a link between artificial dyes and preservatives and the type of behaviors we typically associate with ADHD. One study gave children disguised drinks containing either a mixture of artificial colorings and the preservative benzoate, or drinks that contained no additives, for a week and monitored children’s behavior. It was found that on the weeks children received the hidden colors and preservatives, their behavior was dramatically worse. This finding held true whether or not they had been diagnosed with hyperactivity, and whether or not they had tested positive for any allergies. (Bateman et al., 2004)

The British Food Standards Agency (FSA) also conducted two randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled studies to see whether food dyes in the typical amounts consumed could worsen children’s behavior. The study involved otherwise healthy British kids, not those with ADD or ones suspected of having a sensitivity to the dye. Researchers were concerned enough by the results that they pushed the FSA to call for their elimination: “It is the Agency’s duty to put consumers first. These additives give colour to foods but nothing else. It would therefore be sensible, in the light of the findings of the Southampton study, to remove them from food and drink products.” (McCann et al., 2007)

Dr. Alan Greene notes that “removing artificial colors and preservatives from the diet was dramatically effective at reducing hyperactivity – somewhere between the effectiveness of clonidine and Ritalin, two common ADHD drugs.” (Greene, 2009, p. 105)

I’m a bit more skeptical of this claim myself. It’s not that I disbelieve such a link could exist, but I think the hype surrounding food dyes an ADHD is overblown. Yes, food dyes are artificial chemicals, and they could be having any number of effects on children’s health. There are many chemicals that affect the brain, and many have been linked to increases in ADD-like behavior. Yet the sad truth is that our kids are being exposed to an array of chemicals each and every day. (See our section on chemicals and toxins.) I have yet to see strong and convincing evidence that food dyes are any worse than the onslaught of other chemicals that kids are being exposed to on a daily basis.

There’s also the problem of causation: correlation studies often turn up anomalous results, and nobody seems to be able to outline a solid reason for why food dyes should have this effect. Unlike lead and mercury or some of the other chemicals linked to increases in ADD behaviors, food dyes are not a known neurotoxin. That doesn’t mean it’s impossible for them to affect the brain, (sadly, we know very little about most of the chemicals used throughout our daily lives), but there’s no definitive biological mechanism by which food coloring should alter children’s behavior. Artificial food dyes are inextricably woven into unhealthy diets, (which do have an established physiological mechanism for how they might alter behavior), so it’s hard to tease out which is causing which. When people make extraordinary claims for how a dietary additive is affecting children’s behavior without knowing why, it’s prudent to be a bit more skeptical.

My advice to parents is this: Don’t flip out or go to extremes to try and eliminate food dyes. It would be hard to cut them out completely, no matter how hard you tried. That said, a bit of passive avoidance certainly wouldn’t hurt. Here’s the silver lining in all of this; if you simply focus on a healthier diet based around natural foods to begin with, you’ll dramatically decrease your family’s exposure. “The foods in which you find food dyes are foods that are nutritional paupers,” says food chemistry professor Joe Schwarcz. “If you limit foods that contain food dyes, you automatically make your diet better.” (Waldman, 2023)

If you focus on a healthy diet based on natural foods, you’ll automatically limit your children’s exposure to food dyes. But I don’t think the evidence is strong enough that you need to freak out should your child get their hands on a package of Skittles, nor is it necessary to bar them from their favorite treats because certain items contain artificial food coloring.


  • Bateman, B. et al. (2004) “The effects of a double-blind, placebo-controlled, artificial food colourings and benzoate preservative challenge on hyperactivity in a general population sample of preschool children.” Archives of Diseases in Childhood, 84, p. 506-611
  • Greene, A. (2009) Feeding Baby Green. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass
  • McCann, D. et al. (2007) “Food additives and hyperactive behavior in 3-year-old and 8/9-year-old children in the community: A randomized, double-blinded, placebo-controlled trial.” Lancet Online, DOI: 10.1016/S0140-6736(07)61306-3

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