The Food Journal and Food, Nutrition & Science

An alliance between The Lempert Report and The Center for Food Integrity

Food Colors and Your Child’s Health

Food Colors and Your Child’s Health

Health and Wellness

April 24, 2011

A casual relationship between food colors and hyperactivity in children has not been established, according to the FDA Food Advisory Committee, who convened last month in Silver Spring, Maryland. After reviewing all of the evidence, the Committee, comprised of 13 experts from various scientific fields, concluded that the research looking at hyperactivity and color additives currently does not show a cause-and-effect relationship. However, they said, more studies should be conducted.

The Committee was also asked to consider additional labeling – like a warning statement – on products containing artificial food colors. The majority of the group (57%) opposed this idea; 43% supported the proposal. Food colors are required, as of now, to be listed in the Ingredients List of products containing them, but no cautionary label is required. A major hesitation in adding a warning statement stems from the fact that consumers could be led to think the product was unsafe.

“All food colors, both natural and synthetic, are listed in the ingredients list on food labels. A warning about a safe ingredient like food colors would be misleading and, combined with other unnecessary warnings, could cause confusion and result in consumers tuning out all warnings,” says Lindsey Loving, Senior Director, Food Ingredient and Technology Communications, International Food Information Council (IFIC) Foundation.

A color additive is any dye, pigment or substance which, when added to a food, drug or cosmetic, is capable of imparting color – and they are used for many reasons. Sometimes color additives are used to offset color loss due to exposure to light, air, temperature or storage conditions. Other times, food coloring is used to correct natural variations in color or to enhance colors that naturally occur. Lastly, color additives are used to provide color in “fun” foods. “Brown” cola, “yellow” margarine and “green” mint ice cream are all beneficiaries of color additives.

The FDA is responsible for making sure that food containing color additives are safe to eat, are appropriately labeled, and are subject to certification or exempt from certification. Certified colors are synthetically produced, less expensive and easier blenders; exempt colors come from natural sources like vegetables, minerals or animals, and are typically more expensive. Many manufacturers prefer synthetic color additives because they generally do not add undesirable flavors to foods, while natural pigments may add unintended flavors. All additives are subject to ongoing safety review as understanding and methods of testing continue to improve.

The theory regarding a relationship between hyperactivity and food additives was popularized in the 1970’s, though results from studies on this issue have been inconclusive or inconsistent. In 1982, a Consensus Development Panel of the National Institutes of Health concluded that dietary modification produced some improvement in behavior for children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and confirmed food allergy. However, in 1997, a review published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry concluded that dietary treatment should not be recommended because there was minimal evidence that the processed actually worked.

Although the safety of food colors has been established for decades, experts, scientists and the FDA agree that there may be a very small subset of the population that could be sensitive to certain foods and food components, including but not limited to food colors. Unfortunately, the reason for this is not yet clear, though some believe there could be a genetic component that has nothing to do with the food’s safety. Concerned consumers can avoid colors by reading the labels on their food and beverage products or by choosing products with natural coloring.

Current labeling, as well as information available to consumers online and at the point of purchase, is sufficient to help concerned consumers make informed choices. Retailers can further help their consumers by providing science-based resources (such as the IFIC Foundation/FDA Food Ingredients & Colors brochure), emphasizing safety and nutrition over the debate between natural and artificial, and encouraging the consumption of a nutrient-rich diet including plenty of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, dairy, and lean meat – which will automatically reduce the amount of colors in the diet.

“Foods containing artificial colors represent some of the many choices available to consumers. Foods containing natural colors are available for those who prefer not to consume artificial colors. The beauty of today’s modern food system is that consumers have choices, and we should support the preservation of that choice,” adds Loving.