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Synthetic Dyes in Popular Kids’ Foods Linked to Hyperactivity, Learning Disorders

A new report, described as “the most rigorous assessment of the behavioral effects of food dyes ever conducted,” is based on a review of the results of 27 clinical trials in children performed on four continents over the last 45 years.

Synthetic dyes used as colorants in many common foods and drinks can negatively affect attention and activity in children, according to a comprehensive review of existing evidence published this month by the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA).

Funded by the California legislature in 2018, the new report involved a literature review, scientific symposium for experts, peer review process and public comment period. Its conclusions about the behavioral effects of food dyes are grounded in the results of 27 clinical trials in children performed on four continents over the last 45 years, as well as animal studies and research into the mechanisms through which dyes exert their behavioral effects.

Food dyes in products such as breakfast cereals, juice and soft drinks, frozen dairy desserts, candies and icings were linked to adverse neurobehavioral outcomes in children including inattentiveness, hyperactivity and restlessness. Animal studies also revealed effects on activity, memory and learning.

The report is the most rigorous assessment of the behavioral effects of food dyes ever conducted, said Lisa Lefferts, a senior scientist with the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest. (Editor’s note: Lefferts previously worked as an editor at Environmental Health News (EHN).

Lefferts has been tracking the issue for years and through the Center published her own report on the link between synthetic food dyes and behavioral problems in children in 2016. In it she called for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to either revoke approvals for all food dyes or institute a federal labeling rule.

The EU enacted such a law in 2010 that requires most dyed foods to bear a label warning consumers that food colorings “may have an adverse effect on activity and attention in children.” In response, many food manufacturers reformulated their products for the European market to avoid the dyes, and thus the label.