The color of our food can have a big influence on what and how we eat. A boring grey or brown slab doesn’t look appealing to most, which is why many food scientists and processors use food color additives to enhance the appearance of foods. All food color additives in the U.S. food supply are safe for human consumption, and counter to some news reports, there is limited science that food colors increase hyperactivity in children. This claim has not been proven, but research scientists continue to explore this potential connection.
The safety of food color additives
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) assesses the safety of food additives, including food color additives, before they are allowed for use in the U.S. food supply. Following their rigorous safety assessment, the FDA will indentify whether or not particular color additives are safe for human food, cosmetics, and/or medical devices. Food color additives may include artificially created substances—such as blue, yellow, and red dyes—as well as naturally derived substances, such as beet or carrot extracts. The FDA determines a substance’s safety based on the amount expected to be consumed, its expected short- and long-term effects, as well as other factors. The recommended safe level for consumption is then typically set at a much lower level than is determined safest as a precaution in case someone consumes more than the recommendation. Since not all food consumed in the U.S. has been produced in the U.S., the Food and Agriculture Organizations of the United Nations and the World Health Organization have created the Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA) to assess the safety of any food additives that are internationally traded. This means that all foods produced and brought into the U.S. go through a rigorous process to determine safety before they make it to grocery shelves.
Food color additives and human behavior
Although food color additives are safe to eat, there is ongoing research surrounding the effect of food colors on behavior. Especially in children, there is suspicion that food colors may influence the onset and/or severity of hyperactivity. This hypothesis was popularized in the 1970s based on Dr. Ben Feingold’s research, which suggested that food colors were a direct cause of hyperactivity and learning issues in children. His theory has yet to be proven; researchers in the last 50 years have explored this topic and have not produced consistent conclusions.
Children are naturally highly active, and their moods and activity levels may change due to many different environmental conditions. It is therefore difficult to diagnose hyperactivity alone as well as the clinical disorder known as Attention–Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). While ADHD and ADD (or Attention–Deficit Disorder) are often used interchangeably, ADHD is the clinical diagnostic term that refers to a complex genetic disorder that may include a combination of atypical activity levels, concentration, motivation, learning, and/or other symptoms. While ADHD can result from a number of causes, it is widely believed at this point that food colors, as well as any other food substances, are not a direct cause of this neurological syndrome.
What does the current science say about ADHD and food color additives?
A group of scientists from both the U.S. and the U.K. confirmed the safety of all FDA-approved, synthetically created colors in a study published in 2020. Additionally, a 2020 systematic assessment of FDA-certified colors concluded that food colors do not impact brain activity that is indicative of hyperactivity, implying that no relationship exists between food color additives and the development of ADHD. This conclusion supports a 2017 systematic review that found no evidence of behavior change in children with ADHD following dietary changes, including eliminating artificial food additives.
What does the FDA say about food colors and hyperactivity?
In 2011, the FDA Food Advisory Committee convened to help answer researchers’ burning questions around the topic of food colors and hyperactivity. At the time, the FDA concluded that there was not enough evidence to establish a causal link, while also recommending that more research be done. In 2019, this committee re-convened. After reexamining their 2011 conclusions as well as the new research data, including the studies mentioned previously here, the FDA again concluded that there is not sufficient evidence that shows that food color additives increase hyperactivity and/or ADHD in children.
Additionally, in 2020, the state of California completed a risk assessment of synthetic food dyes to determine the effects of food colors on behavior in children. The results of this risk assessment will be used to determine whether or not further regulatory action (e.g., additional labeling requirements) will be necessary to inform Californians about potential health risks. The summary report, “Health Effects Assessment: Potential Neurodevelopmental Effects of Synthetic Food Dyes in Children,” is available on the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA) website.
Food color additives have been a hot topic for years, a fact that can be concerning to parents and caregivers. People wishing to make informed decisions about the presence of food color additives can check the ingredient lists on products they buy. All ingredients, including food colors, are listed on ingredient lists. While the body of research continues to grow and we should acknowledge the fact that a small segment of the population may be affected by food color additives, currently scientists and regulatory agencies agree that there is not sufficient scientific evidence that links ADHD with food color additives and that more research is needed. In sum, food color additives—whether natural or synthetic—in the U.S. food supply are considered safe for most people.
This article was written by Courtney Schupp, MPH, RD.