Food colorings and ADHD

Why should food with colouring be avoided for children with ADHD?

If you have a child at home with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), it’s important to keep a look out for bright and colourful packaged foods. While most food dyes and colouring agents are usually harmless if consumed in small amounts, there are others that might aggravate behavioural issues in your child suffering from ADHD. Some studies also state that food dyes and behaviour problems are related. Let’s take a closer look.

What is ADHD?

ADHD refers to a medical condition wherein the person suffering from it has differences in brain development and brain activity that affects attention, the ability to sit still and self-control. This condition makes it difficult for children to adjust and manage well in school. Children with ADHD are typically easily distracted, forgetful, hyperactive, and have difficulty concentrating on simple tasks. Since the brain is affected to a large extent by the foods we eat, researchers suggest that the type and nature of foods we feed the brain can control and help in the management of ADHD. Hence ADHD experts recommend focussing on overall nutrition, supplementing certain nutrients and eliminating certain food components from the diet. Food additives, specifically some of the food colourings, are the most frequently eliminated ingredient from the diet of an ADHD child.

Are all food dyes the same?

Food colourings can be categorised as natural and synthetic colours. For example, Yellow no. 5 and Yellow no. 6 are artificial food colourings. However, food can also be coloured yellow by adding natural ingredients derived from plants, minerals, and animal sources. This includes turmeric, paprika, and annatto. The risk of aggravated hyperactivity only stems from synthetically-created food colouring agents. Understanding if food colours can aggravate ADHD is very important because children foods are usually the ones that are very colourful and hence have the most amount of food colouring agents. The main culprits are thought to be the yellow and red colours.

Studies on food dyes and behaviour problems

The theory that food colouring can aggravate hyperactivity in children with ADHD first became popular in the 1970s. It was then that paediatrician Benjamin Feingold published a report suggesting a link between hyperactive behaviour and artificial colours.

In 2007, a study was conducted to understand the link between artificial food colours and childhood behaviour disorders. This was done by the United Kingdom’s Food Standards Agency. Almost 300 students participated in this study. The children were divided into three groups. Two groups were given drinks with different combinations of artificial food colourings and one group was given a placebo. The behaviour of children in the first two groups soon became more hyperactive.

On the other hand, in March 2011, a Food Advisory Committee convened by an FDA panel to review the scientific evidence between hyperactivity and artificial dyes. They found that there was not enough evidence to prove that artificial food colourings contribute to hyperactivity.

Thus, although the conclusions over the years have been inconsistent, in more recent years a direct causal link between artificial colours and worsening of ADHD symptoms have emerged. Considering this, the American Academy of Pediatrics in 2018 recommended that eliminating preservatives and synthetic food colourings from the child’s diet helps reduce ADHD symptoms.

Regulation on food colourings

Each country follows a different policy regarding food colourings in packaged foods. In India, the FSSAI regulations for food colourings allow the use of specific natural and synthetically manufactured colours. The use of synthetic colours is usually limited to 100 parts per million in the final food or beverage. However, in some cases, this may go up to 200 parts per million of the final food or beverage. The colour used must be mentioned on the label. Synthetic colours that are permitted by FSSAI regulations are:

  • Ponceau 4R Red
  • Carmoisine Red
  • Erythrosine Red
  • Tartrazine Yellow
  • Sunset Yellow FCF
  • Indigo Carmine
  • Brilliant Blue FCF
  • Fast Green FCF

However, there are no specific recommendation on food colours with respect to ADHD by FSSAI or any Indian medical associations. In the absence of this, it might be wise to follow global guidelines on eliminating food colours from a child’s diet especially if it helps the child.

What can you do as a parent?

Children need a well-balanced diet with carbohydrates, proteins, vitamins, minerals, and fats, for healthy growth and development. Providing foods that help the brain are thought to help manage ADHD symptoms. Providing high protein diet filled with eggs, nuts, cheese, pulse-based foods like dhoklas, idlis, dosa, especially in the mornings, might help improving concentration in school. Avoiding foods with simple sugars (like candies, chocolate, mithai)¸and loading up on complex carbohydrates (from oranges, apples and other fruits), especially in the evening, might help sleep. Give your child a lot of omega 3 rich foods like walnuts, chia seeds and fish if possible. And last but not least avoid giving all the brightly-coloured food like cupcakes, sugar candies and jelly.