You Are What You Eat: Food Dyes and Behavior

Paige Geis Bradshaw
You Are What You Eat: Food Dyes and Behavior

If your kids are anything like I was as a kid, they love sugary snacks and tasty treats!

Whether it’s crackers, cake mix, or candy, many of the foods we know and love are packed with ingredients we can hardly pronounce. And food dyes are often among them!

There’s been a lot of talk lately about food dyes—especially related to the connection between food dyes and behavior. Do food dyes affect behavior in children? What are food dyes, anyway? Let’s see just how safe food dyes are for your kids.

What Are Food Dyes?

Food dyes, or artificial colors, contain various chemicals that either enhance or alter the color of food. They come in numerous forms like liquid, powder, gel, and paste. In fact, you may see them on the shelf in the baking aisle at your local grocery store!

As color additives, food dyes fall into two categories: those that must meet FDA certification standards, and those that aren’t required to.

Synthetic food dyes that are subject to FDA certification standards:

  • Azo
  • Indigoid dyes
  • Triphenylmethane
  • Xanthene

Food dyes derived from plant or mineral sources that are not subject to FDA certification standards:

  • Dehydrated beets
  • Fruit and vegetable juices
  • Spices, like paprika, saffron, and turmeric

In short, not all food dyes are created equal. Natural food colors come from fruits, vegetables, and spices while artificial food colors come from chemicals.

Food Dye Allergy Symptoms

Both natural and artificial color additives can cause food dye allergy symptoms. Thankfully, these allergic reactions are rare! If they do happen, symptoms are typically mild:

  • Flushing
  • Headache
  • Hives
  • Itchy skin
  • Swelling

However, if your child experiences more severe symptoms—like chest tightness or difficulty breathing—make sure your child receives medical attention right away. Bring with you any notes about what your child ate.

Is there a way to test for food allergies before they come as a surprise? While there are no perfect tests, healthcare providers can administer what’s called a double-blind, placebo-controlled oral food challenge.

This process provides your child with foods packed into capsules. Some contain suspected allergens while others do not—and neither you nor your healthcare provider will know which is which. Pill by pill, you’ll start ruling out what foods cause allergic reactions!

Do Food Dyes Affect Behavior?

It’s hard to say with certainty. There are many studies and anecdotal accounts that suggest food dyes have an impact on children’s behavior, but the research isn’t concrete quite yet.

In 2011 and 2019, the FDA investigated the possible connection between food dyes and hyperactivity in children. They concluded there was no causal relationship on both occasions.

An Australian study conducted in the 1990s found that food dyes do cause irritability, restlessness, and sleep disturbance in some children. But this British study asserts that removing food dyes from your child’s diet will make a minimal impact on their behavior, particularly if they exhibit ADHD-type symptoms.

So, do food dyes affect behavior? Depending on the study, you’ll get a different answer. While it seems food dyes can have some kind of adverse effect on some children, the official word is inconclusive.

Ultimately, as the parent, whether or not you allow your child to consume food dyes is your call! There’s no wrong answer, here. If you’ve noticed behavioral changes in your child, it could be worth considering making adjustments to their diet. Maybe things will improve, maybe they’ll stay the same! In any case, be sure to take any serious concerns to your healthcare provider. They’ll help you get to the bottom of it!

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