Artificial Food Dyes
Food Dyes, ADHD, and Behavioral Problems: Why California Has Banned Red Dye #3
Have you ever noticed your child becoming wildly energetic after consuming candy or punch at a birthday party? You're not alone. Parents have been raising concerns about the link between artificial food dyes and their children's behavior for many years. I, for one, very clearly remember the worst tantrum my daughter ever had. We were at a neighborhood party several years ago, and my daughter (who has ADHD and Autism) snuck herself a cup of fruit punch. Within an hour, I was carrying my writhing daughter out of the party as she hit, screamed, and bit me repeatedly.
Artificial food dyes, the substances used to make candies, soda, and other treats bright and vibrant, are under the microscope. With growing frequency, parents are noting a connection between their children’s negative behavior and their consumption of food containing synthetic dyes — namely, red #3, red #40, and yellow #5. Caregivers have observed that ADHD symptoms can worsen when exposed to food dye, with increased hyperactivity and reduced attention and focus.
Many families in my practice report that food dye (as well as sugar) makes children significantly more irritable. This is especially troubling for parents of kids with conditions like ADHD or autism, where even a minor behavior change can be a big deal.
While parents' stories are impactful, the science isn't as clear-cut. The FDA reports a lack of sufficient proof (in the form of scientific studies) that artificial food dyes exacerbate behavioral issues for kids, a few observational studies suggest a connection, and the debate rages on.
Rules and Bans
Because of the worries about the use of artificial dyes, some places have taken action. The European Union and the UK have banned many food dyes and additives, and food labels must warn you if there are synthetic food dyes in products. They've also limited the use of these dyes in making food after recognizing the real and potential harm to children.
In the US, the FDA has long banned red dye #3 from cosmetics because studies showed it causes cancer in lab animals in high doses. Yet the artificial color, which is derived from petroleum, is still used to give foods and medicines a bright red hue. In fact, according to the Environmental Working Group's Food Scores Guide, over 3,000 products use red #3 as an ingredient.
Now, California is getting in on the act. Starting in 2027, they're banning red #3 and a few other concerning food additives (potassium bromate, brominated vegetable oil, and propylparaben). California is following the lead of the EU and the UK, showing an effort to keep food safe, especially for the next generation.
What to Do?
As a naturopathic practitioner focused on kids with different needs and abilities, my concern about artificial food dyes is real. Even if not all kids are affected, for those who are sensitive to these dyes, eliminating them from the diet can be a game-changer. I routinely work hand-in-hand with parents, giving them personal advice and support and helping them make food choices that work best for their kids. The actions taken by places like California, such as banning red #3, show that the public and private sectors are taking these concerns seriously. As an ND and mother of neurodiverse children, I will keep giving parents tailored advice and support to help them make the best food choices for their unique kids.
Where to Learn More
The Environmental Working Group has an online database that provides in-depth information on more than 80,000 foods. Searchable by either product or ingredient, this database scores products according to nutrition, ingredient, and processing concerns and assigns them a score from 1 to 10, with the best score being a 1. Check it out here
Follow the links below to view comprehensive lists of products that contain artificial dyes:
For additional information, background, and insight, explore the following links: